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Make Way for Byeolsungeom, the Columbo of Joseon

Posted September. 16, 2005 06:34,   


Perhaps because the Chuseok holiday is shorter than usual this year, there is a relatively small number of special TV dramas airing over the holiday weekend. The most notable among them is MBC’s “Joseon Scientific Investigation Unit, Byeolsungeom.”

Slated to air at 1:50 p.m. on September 18, “Byeolsungeom” is a fusion period drama: a police drama set in the late Joseon period. The term “Byeolsungeom” refers to police officers in civilian clothes who carried out special assignments under the jurisdiction of late-Joseon peacekeeping agencies such as the Gyeongmucheong and the Gyeongwiwon.

Forensic medicine in the Joseon period did not fall very far behind today’s methods. In the period’s forensic science book “Muwonrok,” whose title means “eliminating grudges,” one finds numerous descriptions of actual postmortem examinations. The use of wax candles to discover invisible traces of blood is based on the same principle as the use of Luminol by today’s forensic scientists. The book also details how to distinguish between a body that is the result of suicide by hanging and one that is made to look like such a suicide after being killed. The former does not show concentrations of black blood because hanging obstructs both the veins and the arteries, but the latter shows a face darkened with dead blood because only the veins have been obstructed. “Byeolsungeom” realistically portrays the process of finding criminals using these Joseon-era methods.

In 1903, a man named Kim becomes suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the death of his daughter, who had married into the Kwon family, and requests a “samheom” (or third investigation). The previous investigation had concluded that the death was a hanging suicide, but the father insists that the womanizing husband had conspired with his family to murder his wife.

The results of the autopsy again point to suicide by hanging, but the Byeolsungeom on the case begins to ponder the possibility of murder after seeing the numerous bruises left all over the body of the deceased.

The Byeolsungeom learns from the villagers that the deceased’s husband, Kwon, is not a playboy after all and that the deceased had already made several suicide attempts out of guilt because she had not been able to conceive for years after marriage. The cause of the bruises is also brought to light by the testimony of the village people, who attest that the deceased had thrown herself down a cliff in order to kill herself the day before her actual death but had been unsuccessful at the time.

Just as the authorities are about to pronounce her father to have falsely accused the Kwon family, the Byeolsungeom examines the body one last time and finds a mysterious piece of wood in the deceased’s wounds. Noting that the chip of wood appears to have been trimmed by someone and that the deceased’s wounds all point in the same direction, the investigator begins to pursue a possible connection behind these elements.

The show recreates through meticulous research not only the methods of forensic investigation at the time but also the details of the Byeolsungeom’s mode of operation, including how they took their meals while working undercover, and whether or not they were reimbursed for their expenses. The protagonist and senior investigator Kim Sa-yul is played by Jeong Yu-seok, and the female lead, a Byeolsungeom who was formerly a “Damo” (or “tea maid” attached to government agencies), is played by Jo An, last seen in the recent drama “Land.”

Jung-Bo Suh suhchoi@donga.com