By Kwon Mee-yoo
In late the Joseon era, Kim Gang-woo, a special crime investigator known as a "Byeolsoongeom", places a thin vinegar-soaked Korean paper with faint red blotches on a stone. Suddenly, blood drops are revealed. This "gocho" reaction is reminiscent of the luminol test, the up-to-date scientific process seen on the "C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation" series. This is not another C.S.I. spin-off, but "Byeolsoongeom", a Korean historical forensic science drama.
Byeolsoongeom is presently airing on the cable television channel MBC Dramanet at 11:00 p.m., Saturday, but is not the first show to feature these investigators. In 2005, "Mystery Documentary Byeolsoongeom", first aired as a pilot program on MBC during the Chuseok holidays and was included in the regular schedule in fall. It attracted a cult following, but failed to record high viewer ratings and so was cancelled after only five episodes.
Fans continuously requested the return of Byeolsoongeom, and it was temporarily revived as a two-episode New Year's special in 2006. Finally after roughly two years of endless requests from fans, Byeolsoongeom returned to TV screens, this time on MBC Dramanet on Oct. 17, with the original directors and writers.
There are four main Byeolsoongeoms in the drama along with three examiners from "Gyeongmucheong" ― much like today's police. Byeolsoongeoms are like the field investigators of C.S.I, while the examiners are more like lab people.
Unlike most other epic dramas about kings and queens, this drama depicts the life of humble men and women in the 19th century, a time of tumultuous social changes right after King Gojong's modern reforms. Nevertheless, there are almost no historical documents left about this era. The drama reconstructs this "lost period", when foreign civilizations clashed against traditional values, through investigating murder cases.
"Byeolsoongeom deals with forensic science just like the C.S.I. series, but instead of sloppily copying the American version, it dates back to the Joseon era. It can gain more sympathy from Korean viewers who like crime investigation stories", said Sung Hyun-suk, a fan.
All the experiments and investigation methods described in the drama are based on historical inquiry. "Sinjumuwonrok", a guidebook for autopsy published in 1440, and "Jeungsumueonrok" an updated version of the former with investigation archives and secrets of the Byeolsoongeom's scientific background. Of course, there are some imaginary settings in the drama as well. For example, roping off the crime scene with special straw rope and keeping evidence in designated envelopes is not historically accurate.
The show recorded an audience rating of 4.33 percent on Nov. 17, according to TNS Media Korea _ the first time a cable TV program has exceeded ratings of 4 percent, which is equivalent to a 15 percent rating on network television. Ironically, the original "Mystery Documentary Byeolsoongeom" broadcast on the network channel MBC was a failure because of low ratings. Thus, the drama's success on cable shows the difference in taste between viewers of mainstream and cable TV. Most TV dramas aim for average viewer demographics while cable television dramas mostly target a specific audience. This allows cable television dramas to have more freedom.
Another driving force behind Byeolsoongeom are inarguably the fans. More than 3,000 people joined the drama's Internet club to share information and discuss the drama. Some active fans even visited the shooting scene to encourage the actors and directors. There will be a special screening in a movie theater for fans on Dec. 22.
The last episode of the first season will be aired on Dec. 29 and the producers plan to release a second season next August. The gap will be filled by a Byeolsoongeom Web cartoon serialized in Daum Comics (Open the link
). Lee Jae-moon, producer of the drama, said the web cartoon will focus more on supporting characters' stories and spectacular computer graphics not shown in the drama. "This Web cartoon is an example of one source multi-use of TV dramas", Lee said.
With a solid story, descriptions based on historical evidence and impassioned performance of actors, the show marks a new epoch in original cable television dramas.