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South Korea 2006

Comedy, Drama

Kim Dae-woo

Han Suk-kyu
Lee Beom-su
Kim Min-jung
Oh Dal-su
Hong Gyo-jin
Choi Jong-ryol
Oh Tae-kyung
Yoon Sang-hwa

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Forbidden Quest

Story: Kim Yoon-seo (Han Suk-kyu) is an inspector at the royal court during the Joseon-dynasty. Queen Jung-bin (Kim Min-jung) orders him to find a painting that apparently has been stolen and replaced by an exact copy. With the help of inspector Gwang-heon (Lee Beom-su), whose family is at enmity with Yoon-seo's, he finds out that merchant Hwang (Oh Dal-su) is responsible for the theft. At that merchant's shop he also finds someone who is making copies of an indecent book that seems to be very popular among the people in town. Yoon-seo's initial aversion soon is compensated by his fascination. Since he himself is active as a writer he also tries to write something of this special genre. Even though all of this is somewhat embarrassing for him it soon shows that he has great talent and his first work becomes a sensation. In order to outdo his rivals Yoon-seo now also tries to persuade Gwang-heon, who is painting in his free time, to do some illustrations for his book.
At the same time the queen shows strong interest in Yoon-seo and meets with him in secret. The inspector knows that his affair with Jung-bin is most likely to be found out about which would mean his execution, but his desire makes him become braver than he would have ever thought to be possible...

Review: It's strange that such an inventive movie like "Forbidden Quest" attracted so little interest among critics. Maybe this is because the film tries to be a comedy and drama at the same time and with this walks a problematic road that can't really lead to the viewer's full satisfaction? But even though the movie can't fully convince as a genre-mix, the pungent satire on the aristocratic court of the Joseon-dynasty is entertaining until the end. That is also achieved thanks to the wonderful sets, costumes and the unusual story. Moreover, the leading roles are perfectly cast so that even some of the more obvious flaws of the film can be ironed out by them. Also, "Forbidden Quest" is the directing debut of Kim Dae-woo, who has already written the script to "An Affair" or "Untold Scandal", latter one being a costume movie as well. He proves his talent especially when it comes to picture composition and he manages to capture the at times extremely contrasting moods of the film quite well.

The movie starts off rather slow and you can't make out anything of its humor at first. Only after Yoon-seo has taken the indecent book into his hands the at times subtle at other times very abstruse humor of this extraordinary film unfolds. The gags are refreshing and sometimes feel so out of place in this aristocratic setting that you have to laugh out loud. Maybe the crowning moment is when scholar Yoon-seo takes off his hat, which you just don't do in front of the common people, and illustrates certain sex positions with an older man as his partner. Han Suk-kyu ("Christmas in August", "Shiri", "A Bloody Aria") is just the right man to carry this role. His at first glance introverted nature, which however already lets you assume that there is more under the surface than meets the eye, dissolves as the movie progresses. Through his books the former cowardly court scholar finally finds his courage to express himself and reveal his most inner self. In his imagination he can do the things that he would never have dared to do because of his status. But with time fantasy and reality interact more and more so that the initial lightheartedness at some point makes way for a more deadly serious tone.

Things get dangerous for the inspector when he gets involved with the queen. The decent and boring life of an aristocrat like that of Yoon-seo is broken apart by the power of the pen and fantasy and brings some new colors into the life of the official. Unluckily, he mixes this new found world with that of the royal court when he starts an affair with Jung-bin. Kim Min-jung ("The Flying Boys") isn't just the eye candy of the movie with her giant, perfectly spherical eyes, but also imbues something dignifying and at the same time girlish upon her character, whereas latter might in fact be traced back to her being in love. She has something innocent about her and yet she is a woman with enormous power at her disposal. Yoon-seo just doesn't take things that serious and soon enough has to find out that hell has no fury like a woman scorned. This also brings us to one of the negative aspects of the movie. Towards the end everything gets a bit unnecessarily overdramatic and serious. Yes, the characters we learned to love throughout the movie, especially Gwang-heon, whose facial expressions and indignation is perfectly carried by Lee Beom-su ("City of Violence", "Death Bell"), are getting into life-threatening situations, which actually comes as a surprise concerning the film's mood at the beginning.

What is irritating is that there is some pretty explicit violence depicted towards the end. This somehow feels out of place, especially when you consider that despite the movie's subject there are no explicit sex scenes to be seen. There may be some indecent lines the like of you normally don't get to hear in a Korean movie and as already said there are also sex positions to be seen, but all of this in a very humoristic way. At the end, however, things get very bloody and almost dark. In this respect the ending that desperately tries to find back to the film's original mood almost has to be called inappropriate.
There is also a bit of brain food, though. When Yoon-seo tells his illustrator Gwang-heon about his newest ideas, whereas he weaves his real experience with the queen into the story, of course, Gwang-heon is enraged that even when it comes to fiction you have to at least stick to a minimum of reality! Yoon-seo's argument that it's just reality that is sometimes very unrealistic of course proves at least partly true not just within the framework of the movie...

"Forbidden Quest" plays with the indecent that has always had a certain appeal to people no matter what social status. At the same time the story describes a man who wants to break free from the restrictive chains of his status, overcome his cowardice and evetually finds his inner self, even if this self of his is a bit twisted as is the case with not that few people. But that's just what makes him so sympathetic. Since the director works on two "reality levels" with Yoon-seo's books and at the same time takes into account that following generations will demand for more and more sexually explicit material he creates a bridge to the present and immunizes himself against certain kinds of criticism thanks to the intermixing of reality and fiction. Director Kim Dae-woo, however, just can't be forgiven the blatant contrasts in the movie's tone. Thanks to the interesting topic and the fact that Korean costume movies normally don't succeed in captivating me and even the less when they are 140 minutes long I will turn a blind eye on certain aspects of the movie and show some of my goodwill. A surprisingly extraordinary film!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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