In Joseon, erotica is banned, and can only be obtained in illegal markets. Incidentally, Yoon-seo (played by Han Suk-kyu) is a royal inspector who is a total weenie and also a dishonor to his family. Close proximity to official tough guy Gwang-heon (played by Lee Beom-soo) can only do so much. But a chance encounter with the erotica market slowly leads Yoon-seo on to the path of manly self-confidence, casually tossing aside lowly deocrum that he may better lust for Queen Jeong-bin (played by Kim Min-jung).
While that all probably sounds like a pretty typical pornographic set-up, writer/director Kim Dae-woo frames Yoon-seo's "Forbidden Quest" in surprisingly mundane terms. This is more a movie where people constantly talk about sex than they ever actually get around to having any. It's not even clear Yoon-seo has ever had sex with anyone his whole life when the movie has started and yet this has no apparent negative impact on his erotic writing skills because why would it?
The Joseon backdrop also takes preeminence less because the story deals with a lot of archaic censorship laws and more because the characters all talk really slowly and gracefully, to the point of self-parody. I actually got fairly impatient for Yoon-seo to finally get into the sex stuff because the man has to go through a lot of boring meetings for the story to get that far. Then after that it's just all sex all the time, because isn't that the mood you're in after a long number of boring meetings that take way longer than they should?
Yet for all these pretensions of being a period film "Forbidden Quest" is also, somewhat weirdly, a commentary on modern day erotica. Observe how apparently most of the buyers of these weird books are housewives with very strong opinions on how it should be done correctly. Yoon-seo also starts dressing like a writer for...some reason. Discussion of realism also takes centerpoint, not in the modern sense of characterization or fantasy elements but in the context of unfathomable social taboos.
The alleged love story at the center of "Forbidden Quest" similarly feels more like something out of a handbook of proper tropes than an organic romance. Consider how Jeong-bin, by virtue of being Queen, is kind of hot, because that makes her a strong woman. So logically only the strongest manliest man could ever get it on with her. Kind of makes me wonder about the sex life of actual royalty, and whether they consider their titles to be an inherent turn-on.
But "Forbidden Quest" is never convincingly close either to a legitimate royalist drama or an outright parody. It just sort of hovers around the middle, making weird sex jokes that never really make sense except in its odd hybrid context of being a present-day story about stuffy Joseon sexuality. Where else could we get straight-faced discussion about possible advances in gay erotica being made possible by classical style torture? That is "Forbidden Quest" at its best.
Review by William Schwartz
Available on DVD from Amazon
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Forbidden Quest" + DVD Giveaway"
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
[HanCinema's Film Review] "Le Grand Chef" + DVD Giveaway
Seong-chan (played by Kim Kang-woo) was once the up-and-coming chef in an exceptionally prestigiou,...More
[HanCinema's Film Review] "Runaway From Home" + DVD Giveaway
Seong-hee (played by Ji Jin-hee) is a music critic who's a bit of a snobbish jerk. Observe how he ,...More
Subscribe to HanCinema Pure to remove ads from the website (not for episode and movie videos) for US$0.99 monthly or US$7.99 yearly (you can cancel anytime). The first step is to be a member, please click here : Sign up, then a subscribe button will show up.