Forbidden Quest Review
Life: entertainment, sex, drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll and sex and sex. We live in an indecent world don’t we, where all the naughty stuff in it excites us the most. Hey if that’s how we still feel today just imagine how things were when times were a changing and erotic literature started to hit the streets: just a few hundred years ago with the advent of Japanese woodblock (Ukiyo-e) prints, or the earlier Karma Sutra, not to mention “The Kinky How to Impress Girls with the Essence of Yak”, which was subsequently banned within hours of its release. During the latter part of the Chosun period in Korea erotic novels were making the rounds, depicting deliciously lurid artwork and featuring descriptions that quite easily raised eyebrows. It’s here that Forbidden Quest takes place, around the 18th century, as scholars engage in a secretive battle to see who can become the master of erotic literature.
Kim Yoon-suh (Han Suk-kyu) is an inspection officer and scholar of the royal court. Generally regarded as a coward who won’t even stick up for his own family he has a difficult time dealing with more personal matters. As a writer he’s highly respected, but when he happens upon an “indecent” book penned by the famous In Bong, of whom he hasn’t heard of before, he becomes intrigued by its erotic content and begins to worry if his current work lacks the same kind of excitement and dream-like qualities. Spurred on by his friend Hwang - who works in transcribing – Yoon-suh goes under the pseudonym of Chu Wol Sek and sets out to write his first erotic masterpiece. It’s easier said than done though as Yoon-suh soon finds himself uncomfortable and somewhat embarrassed to be attempting such a feat. All that soon changes when he’s invited to see the king’s favourite concubine Jung-bin (Kim Min-jung), during which time a brief encounter draws them within a breath of each other, thus suddenly endowing him with the inspiration he needs to get underway. Sure enough his book is published and it’s a success: a rousing tale of a man and his tawdry affair with a noble woman. But despite its success it’s only the second best selling book on the shelves. If he’s to better In Bong then he’s going to have to get inventive…
It soon dawns on Yoon-suh that the best way to approach his second chapter is by inserting pictures between several pages, but not just any old pictures, these are to depict people in their throws of passion, in all its detail as he continues to invent different positions for the mind to wonder about. It just so happens that he has the perfect gentleman in mind for the job - Justice Administrator (a.k.a. “The Angel of Death”) Lee Gwang-hun (Lee Beom-su), having seen his marvellous paintings, which are merely done for hobby purposes. After some convincing Gwang-hun agrees to help Yoon-suh, along with the aid of two master forgers who Yoon-suh has taken under his wing. Together they produce a best-seller, inspired by Yoon-suh’s burgeoning real life affair with Jung-bin. So popular is the book in fact that it lands into the possession of the Jung-bin who quickly sees what is going on and heads out to take immediate action. Yoon-suh and Gwang-hun are soon caught up in a situation whereby trust and loyalty quickly loses its meaning and those who don’t think before acting are placing themselves in grave danger.
First time director Kim Dae-woo has a pretty good track record when it comes to his screenplays for feature films such as An Affair, The Foul King and Untold Scandal. With Forbidden Quest he naturally works from his own script, and an epic one at that. Forbidden Quest runs for an almost whopping two and a half hours, and during that time it presents us with laughter and drama in equal measure; it even provides an exceedingly dark tone during its latter stages. However, Dae-woo is ever so comfortable in his craft: The director’s dialogue and handling of several themes is considerably sharp and nothing short of compelling. Keep in mind that most of this film deals with the eloquence of writing dirty love stories and you have to wonder how much good can come from it. But it goes beyond that because the director truly gets into the mechanics behind this method of storytelling with a fun and passionate verve. It’s strangely amusing to see the principal male figures men simulate sexual positions in order to get a feel for their work, because we know that they have no one else to turn to; homoerotic subtext is certainly debatable, though I’m inclined to not even bother as this is purely a deliberate, comical device. Furthermore it’s the communication between Yoon-suh and his curious fellows that contributes greatly toward raising smiles all round, and seeing in particular how well Dae-woo slowly transforms the character of Yoon-suh from cowardly aristocrat to an honest enough fellow.
Forbidden Quest’s solid structure is what ends up complimenting the feature the most, as it succeeds in handling a tone that dramatically shifts act by act. In order for this kind of thing to work there has to be a logical sense of progression. There cannot be a closing without these characters having to pay for their actions in some way or another; we’re dealing with betrayal and royal families, it is therefore only natural to see someone atone for their sins. Dae-woo confidently addresses social taboos and repression without the need to pretentiously milk his commentary. The way in which he shows a country on the brink of change is admirable, and he enforces this especially in closing by bringing things around to a point where everything must start all over again, while the contrasting differences between social change run their steady course throughout. His controlled direction means that no specific genre elements contained within outdoes the other: Yes it’s comical, yes it’s dramatic and yes it can be down right nasty, but neither aspect dominates to the point that we feel let down by the overall product – this is something that can be widely argued against a large number of films coming out of South Korea that have dared to bridge multiple genres. His film is surprisingly subtle and tasteful, never resorting to cheap gags or offensive situations like it could have so easily done, but instead being rather discreet and mild mannered. We know that sex sells, but here Dae-woo proves that we don’t have to physically see breasts and bums for it to be erotic and tantalising; instead this aspect actually aids the storytelling, demonstrating an understanding of how sex works within the world, or more closely examined, papery past times. Where women could so easily become objectified or otherwise in any film such as this the director wisefully turns it against the men in equal measure: the exploiters becoming the exploited to some degree. And so, despite being a long film Dae-woo neatly breaks it down into sections that are easily stomached and remain respectful to both gender and subject matter.
Kim Dae-woo has also managed to create a sumptuous looking film with the help of cinematographer Kim Ji-yong and art director Cho Keun-hyun (A Tale of Two Sisters). Its wide scope captures a beautiful moment in history, while Dae-woo’s compositions are magnificent; magically highlighting characters and surroundings with its splendid use of colours and detail and there’s a nice sense of movement throughout which creates a lively environment filled with plenty of nuance. Dae-woo also uses visual trickery to enhance several scenes, some of which entails CG work as a means to provide laughs. The whole fantasy element of the film is charmingly played, becoming awfully reminiscent of the kind of narrative devices employed in Lee Jeong-hyang’s Art Museum by the Zoo, and to a lesser extent Gwak Jae-young’s My Sassy Girl.
Han Suk-kyu and Lee Beom-su form a great partnership here; the last time they appeared in the same film together was in ‘96’s The Ginko Bed. They share for more screen time this time around, of which there’s a comfortable repertoire between them. Han Suk-kyu has great presence, enlivening just about every film he’s worked on; in Forbidden Quest he proves once again that he’s more than up for the task of taking on challenging roles, and that’s what makes him such a prized actor in his homeland, with an impressively varied CV and a loyal following. Beom-su laps up his role and provides a nice counter as Suk-kyu’s hapless sidekick, trying to keep his moonlighting as an erotic artist a secret while trying to run the Justice Administration. And to round off a solid cast we have the rising talent of Kim Min-jung who previously had provided worthwhile turns in her debut Whispering Corridors and Bus Stop.
enterOne presents yet another wonderfully packaged film. A sturdy, magnetised case houses two digipacks and a reproduction of the script, though unsurprisingly it’s in Korean only.
Forbidden Quest is graced with an almost perfect 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. I say almost because Edge Enhancement and a very small amount of aliasing disturb it. Otherwise we have a very crisp image, with excellent colour reproduction all round, strong blacks and good contrast levels. A fitting transfer for a fine looking film.
Korean DD2.0 and DD5.1 Surround tracks are optional. As expected the 5.1 track is well produced. Again we don’t have a DTS option, which leaves me to wonder if Korean distributors are starting to wind down on this a little, though to be perfectly honest films like this don’t warrant huge sound theatrics. Regardless of that there’s nothing worth disputing here; the track admirably does its job, using rear surrounds to good, though subtle effect while much of the dialogue takes place across the centre stage, presenting to problems in terms of clarity. Forbidden Quest’s score, which consist of a couple of beautiful compositions is detailed nicely throughout.
There are also optional English subtitles that contain very little in the way of grammatical errors; easy to read and well timed we have another strong effort from enterOne.
Disc 1 contains an audio commentary as well as an after commentary, which is a brief video interview. Disc 2 contains the rest of the extras. The menus are in Korean so I can’t translate each one but I’ll do my best. Starting with interviews (19.03) we have the director and two other crew members (presumably art direction and I can’t guess the other) explaining bits and pieces, while we watch clips of Han Suk-kyu and Lee Beom-su rehearsing lines, with script meetings also being shown. We see the actors learn calligraphy and go through make up. Next up is behind the scenes footage (35.09) where we simply see scenes being shot, though each scene corresponds to a specific actor who is briefly interviewed beforehand. There are moments here where actors break into laughter, especially during the simulated sex scenes. We look at set design next (18.10) which shows just how much detail and care went into the production of the film. It’s quite stunning to see them go from sticks to realistic streets and houses. A look at props follows next, with preparations for blue and green screen shooting, with the final part looking at wardrobe and make up. An interview with the film composer (I think) follows next and then two other people talk for a bit (see how hard my job is?), with a short look at CG afterwards. A selection of non anamorphic deleted scenes with time codes in next up, of which there are five in total. Finally we get the theatrical trailer, a press conference with the lead actors and director, shooting for the promo campaign and a moving still gallery.
Not everyone is going to get along well with Forbidden Quest; it is a long film which will undoubtedly test the patience of many, but it’s a lavish production backed by yet another strong performance from Han Suk-kyu. Director Kim Dae-woo has made a very impressive debut with a sharp script that has a genuine wit about it, as well as strong themes that are cleverly realised. He successfully blends several genres and by the end of it all the viewer comes away with a feel good vibe. enterOne has certainly done a commendable job in presenting it on DVD, so for those curious I recommend you get straight in there and pick it up soon.
Last updated: 25/06/2018 00:36:37