[K-FILM REVIEWS] 음란서생 (Forbidden Quest) - Part 1

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Happiness. So difficult to reach, to maintain, to even realize it's there. Aristotle said happiness only depends upon ourselves; it's an invisible row of stairs without an end, a mountain without a top, it constantly changes without letting us know. In your infancy, happiness might just mean attracting the attention of your parents, who will give you food and comfort; as adults, finding someone who understands you, settling down and building a family. In the twilight years, it could mean passing away without pain, without making the people you care about suffer because of you. Happiness means different things to different people, on different moments. It flies away if you try to grab it, but as Nathaniel Hawthorne reminds, may alight upon you by simply sitting down, quietly. If you're reading this site, then there's probably something we share already, regardless of age, nationality or whichever other distinction: movies make us happy. How they exactly do that, it depends on many factors, things which aren't easy to put into words. Is it simply a combination of good acting, directing, writing? Is it the visceral experience, or that sense of intellectual stimulation? The wild boar scene in 웰컴 투 동막골 (Welcome To Dongmakgol), the market place scenes in 형사 Duelist, the final 20 Minutes of 지구를 지켜라 (Save The Green Planet), or the first, diabolically ingenious 'on the field investigation' in 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder). Those are a few of my happiest memories from recent years of Korean Cinema, moments which might be completely different from yours, but at the end of the day hide the same desire, the same impulse. We don't simply watch films as a trait d'union between dinner and other, more 'erotic' eating sessions. We do it because they make us happy, they're like oxygen to us. Not everyone makes films because they bring them happiness: some just want a quick buck, some others want to make a name for themselves; some even prostitute their work in the name of politics. But some people out there still believe in films because they're the quickest, the most secure way to climb that invisible row of stairs and reach that end at least for 2 hours, hoping some people will feel the same thing: happiness. See? It's not impossible, all you need is to do things with sincerity, like first time director Kim Dae-Woo, who showed his pursuit of happiness wasn't a Forbidden Quest. 음란, Something indecent.

Times have changed, but it still remains one of the most important subjects in all of popular culture, no matter where you go. What constitutes indecency obviously changes according to which culture and period (or even people) you're dealing with, but the basic feelings haven't changed. In the Joseon Dynasty, class divide often painted the boundaries of what was considered indecent. Breaking from the strict Confucian values was seen as indecent, and often used against rival factions as a scapegoat, during the centuries of party strife which made the Joseon Dynasty a little different than the 'Land of the Morning Calm' foreign neighbours knew. Many influential scholars even tried to convince King Sejong and his associates against investing time and resources into the creation of 한글 (hangeul, the Korean alphabet), as it would undermine their position as elite, reducing the cultural gap between Yangban and commoners. Sejong and his researchers completed the Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People in secret in late 1443, to avoid The Hall of Worthy Subjects' tentatives to derail the project. When the book was published in the Fall of 1446, the first steps of a cultural revolution began to appear.

The advent of Hangeul brought instant changes in society, changes the elite couldn't do a thing about: criticizing social inequalities, the first 의적소설 (Novels of Heroic Thieves) started appearing, like the classic 홍길동전 (The Story of Hong Gil-Dong). Featuring a sort of Joseon equivalent of the West's Robin Hood (although he really existed), these novels tried to give some hope to commoners, focusing on the corruption and misuse of power of the ruling classes. But of course, the biggest change came with 음란소설 (Indecent Novels), mixing racy subjects with very explicit depictions of sex, often involving nobles. Perhaps the most important painters of the period, the 'Three Won' (Ohwon Jang Seung-Eop, Hyewon Shin Yoon-Bok, Danwon Kim Hong-Do) all came into contact with this new current in some way or form, through their paintings. Hyewon was expelled from the 도화서 (Dohwaseo, Royal Painting Institute) because of his realistic and explicit erotic paintings, and as you've probably seen in Im Kwon-Taek's 취화선 (Chihwaseon), even Jang Seung-Eop crossed paths with erotic novels as a 화가 (illustrator). Hyewon in particular was famous for starting a big trend towards representing the life of Gisaeng, which obviously led to a similar movement in literature, with the birth of folk tales like 춘향 (Chunhyang) and the tale of Joseon's most famous concubine, 황진이 (Hwang Jin-Yi).

It's also interesting to note how similar subjects were a major element of popular culture in recent periods of Korean History, despite being separated by centuries. The biggest appeal of those early 'erotic novels' was not simply the fact they depicted something (sex and lasciviousness) which was taboo, but that it often involved nobles. The novelty about a sex scandal between two unknown villagers would wear off pretty soon, but let one of the King's concubines, some influential scholar or politician enter the picture, and things suddenly became a little more interesting. In a way, things haven't changed all that much, as the sex scandals of today still involve people in important positions, often celebrities (look at Baek Ji-Young and Oh Hyun-Kyung), and despite featuring people doing the most natural of things, they're still scandals, 'indecent', because like in the Joseon Dynasty, it's not us 'commoners' doing it. The environment might change a little, but it's the same dynamics.

Even films took advantage of this desire for indecent material, or at least became a hot topic because of it. In the 50s, just a kiss scene--the first in Korean film History--was enough to make Han Hyung-Mo's 운명의 손 (The Hand of Fate) one of the most controversial films of the decade; on the other hand, genius director Kim Ki-Young made 'indecent' the mot du jour of the majority of his works, most importantly with what's possibly the greatest Korean film of all time - 하녀 (The Housemaid), in which our heroine (who makes Sassy Girl look like Mother Teresa) manages to destroy a musician's family through seduction, murder and more than any sane man could handle. Kim, still one of the most underappreciated Directors in all of Film History, always tackled taboo subjects, with a wicked energy unrivaled until Jang Sun-Woo broke into the scene. Despite what many consider a dark age in Korean Cinema, the 70s produced many controversial works dealing with taboo subjects, one of them being the 1977 super-hit (by the period's standards) 겨울여자 (Winter Woman), with Jang Mi-Hee's Yi-Hwa having sex with different partners because of the guilt from her boyfriend's suicide. The film sold 585,775 tickets on its 113 day run at Danseongsa Theater, record which held until 1990's 장군의 아들 (The General's Son).

Many hostess films of the period had very little redeeming value other than titillation, phenomenon which became even worse in the 80s, with erotic Dramas becoming one of the most popular genres at the box office, and the first 애마부인 (Madame Aema) leading the race. But although many of those works were very little more than thinly veiled (pun intended) attempts at wrapping some phony stories around plenty of T&A, there's still some great entries in the 'genre', such as Lee Du-Yong's 뽕 (Mulberry Tree) with a stunning turn from leading lady Lee Mi-Sook; Lee Jang-Ho's films with Lee Bo-Hee, like 어우동 (Eoudong) and 무릎과 무릎 사이에 (Between The Knees) and especially Jung Jin-Woo's early 80s works. The eroticism, that sense of lasciviousness in those films was higher than in any other period of Korean Film History to date, and--go figure--many of those works dealt with concubines or stories set in the Joseon Dynasty. Some argue that those films weren't simply visceral entertainment for viewers, they were also a sort of escape valve from the bleakness and changing values dominating the period. In some ways, they were like those erotic novels of the Joseon Dynasty, criticizing corruption at the top, making readers feel a stronger sense of hope, and adding that final icing on the cake, that spicy salad called sex to top it all off.

And it's also quite interesting how the new Chungmuro of recent years started approaching the matter of 'indecent' themes, in the closest equivalent of those 80s erotic films, upgraded to fit today's new standards: Lee Jae-Yong's Fusion Drama 스캔들 (Untold Scandal). Its writer? None other than Director Kim Dae-Woo of 음란서생 (Forbidden Quest). 2000. Korean Cinema was rocked by the success of black comedy classic 반칙왕 (The Foul King) and Park Chan-Wook's 공동경비구역 JSA (Joint Security Area), both starring Song Kang-Ho. Back then Kim Dae-Woo was just a writer. OK, not 'just' a writer, but one of the most promising ones in Chungmuro: it took a good half decade to get things going, but by the mid-to-late 90s Kim was already responsible for two very solid scripts. One was for the Kitano-esque black gangster comedy 깡패수업 (Hoodlum Lessons), which might be like a shock to fans of Kim Sang-Jin's later films, as it has a markedly different tone. The film starring Park Joong-Hoon and Park Sang-Min might not reach the heights of 넘버3 (No. 3) in deconstructing the tropes of the Jopok comedy, but it's still one of the best examples of the genre. And the second was his first collaboration with Lee Jae-Yong, the 1998 melodrama 정사 (An Affair), which marked the big screen return of Lee Mi-Sook after what seemed like ages, in a very provocative role. After working on 투캅스 3 (Two Cops 3), in many ways the worst of the trilogy but also the most 'progressive', one of Kim's early novels was adapted for Park Jong-Won's interesting 성어 (Rainbow Trout).

Then came the breakthrough, The Foul King. Be it because he met with a true master like Kim Jee-woon, or because the setting perfectly fit with his world view, what came out of his hands was one of the greatest comedies Korea ever produced: part black comedy, part pungent satire on the modern Korean concept of dog-eat-dog and 빨리빨리 (Fast! Fast!) mixed with Peter Pan Complex-afflicted coming of age Drama tropes, professional wrestling, love, trot songs (a badass soundtrack by the genial EoEoBu Project as well), soju and some of the best ad-lib work in years thrown in the mix. It was one of those days that the idea behind Forbidden Quest came into fruition. Kim by total coincidence visited a site about erotic novels, and found it interesting as a writer himself there were people writing reviews, evaluating those works just like every other novel. Weeks later, while eating out with an assistant director, they started discussing about several scenarios for possible future films, one of those 'what if...' debates which often start and end on the dining table. One of those ideas seemed fun: an erotic, indecent story set in the Joseon Dynasty. In the midst of party strife, one man falls into the vortex of eroticism, attracted by those indecent novels of the era, losing interest in party matters.

Kim brought this idea to the attention of Oh Jung-Wan, President of Bom Films, who were already preparing for his debut film as a director, entitled The Art of Temptation. But then again, Oh changed the cards, saying that Director Lee Jae-Yong was preparing something similar called 스캔들 (Untold Scandal), and eventually Kim was asked to write the script for the film. Although some of his initial ideas went into the 2003 film with Jeon Do-Yeon and Bae Yong-Joon--like erotic novels used to illustrate the main character's philandering ways--Kim wanted to go a little deeper, and chose the Korean title of his next film from the same discussion which started it all. 음란서생, Scholar of Indecency. Maybe too direct, but after all Kim was responsible for using titles like An Affair, The Foul King and even Ryu Seung-Wan's 2005 film going from 서울의 주먹 (The Fist of Seoul) to 주먹이 운다 (Crying Fist), so it was nothing out of the ordinary for him. But the point went back to the essence of that word 음란, indecency.

Not about how indecent people will find it, but what's indecent for people in the first place. After studying in France (at the ISEC) and going through many important films as a writer, the time had finally come for Kim to debut as a director. All he had to do was write one of his usual good scripts, and prepare himself for his first experience as a feature length director (he made a short before, which allowed him to understand how different going from writer to director can be). And he did write a good script, a great one, as buzz about it was flying all over Chungmuro for months, with many people praising it wildly for its creativity and flawless mix of comedy and drama. Using current Fusion Drama trends, combined with the appeal of the Joseon Dynasty on audiovisual terms, and even smart references to today's jargon--like using 폐인 (PyeIn, People crippled, addicted to something) which became en vogue thanks to 다모 (Damo) addicts, or things like 덧글 (Reply) and 동영상 (Moving Pictures/Video). The biggest problem a writer faces when debuting as a director is the tendency not to look at the script from a detached point of view.

Meaning, since you're the one who wrote the script, who cherishes every page of the final version, it'll be hard to separate yourself from any of those elements, as you think they're essential to the film's narrative. Many directors take scripts as a simple guideline, adding their input in terms of visuals and rhythm, often changing the mood of the film. But although the film does suffer a little from this condition, it's clear Kim understand the importance of assuming the role of a director instead of simply following the script he wrote. This is something he experienced first hand on the set, as actors and their style add different dynamics to certain scenes depending on whom you choose, dynamics often the opposite of the rhythm the writer creates in his own mind while working on the script. This was painfully obvious when the actors sat down for the script rehearsal, which lasted a whopping 3 hours and 40 Minutes. In normal situations, you'd just speed up the dialogue, cut here and there and find other quick solutions, but this was a Sageuk, with all the dialogue-related issues that come with it. 옛말 (Old Korean) has a different rhythm and speech patterns compared to today's Korean, and altering those balances would rid that dialogue of its gravity--and its consequences would be felt on the comedy as a result, as it often deals with speech patterns and how people like Oh Dal-Soo deviate from the usual in doing that.

In a recent interview, Director Kim commented that the film went from a 3 hours 40 Minutes story about 'someone who didn't look like the type who would do such things, ending up doing those things' to a 2 hour 10 Minutes story about 'someone who looked like he could do such things, who ends up doing them'. That's a big change, so he and Editor Choi Min-Young worked together to convince producers another 15-20 Minutes were necessary, to better introduce Scholar Yoon-Seo (Han Suk-Gyu) coming into contact with the world of erotic novels through other ordeals. This is an important point to consider when looking at the length of the film: Kim is not just adding filler left and right as ancillary to his main themes, he's adding flavour that will help the main course taste better. That is why we start introducing Yoon-Seo's family situation, as an indirect victim of party strife. These moments establish his disconnection with the problems his clan is facing, something he's not entirely interested in. People call him coward as he just looks and never acts, despite being a renowned and potentially influential Scholar and Palace Subject, but that's not what moves him. He needs to fill a void, to grab something which will change his life as he knew it, because things could no longer go on that way.

Then again, it might be a Sageuk, but the core themes of many of Kim's past works keep re-emerging, although this time they're clothed in luxurious, stunningly beautiful hanbok's. Certainly the focus has slowly moved from the middle class (The Foul King and An Affair) to Yangban in Untold Scandal and Forbidden Quest, but what those characters are after, and their modus operandi is more or less the same. Im Dae-Ho (Song Kang-Ho) in The Foul King ventures into professional wrestling despite his father's complaints asking him to grow up, to find an 'oasis' where he can finally enjoy life; Seo-Hyun (Lee Mi-Sook) and Woo-In (Lee Jung-Jae) embark on an affair despite the risk of tearing apart their families, to put some energy back into their lives; the three main characters in Untold Scandal risk everything despite their strict environment, not afraid of breaking rules which would land them in trouble, all for that. What 'that' is, what Yoon-Seo is after just like all those characters is that departure, that escape from the routine. To find what? You guessed it, happiness. And the recurring themes don't stop there: Im Dae-Ho becomes Asura X, the Foul King, only after wearing the mask.

Wearing it, he can confess his love for one of his colleagues, he can confront the thugs on the way home, he can find the courage to do something well for once. He creates an oasis of happiness in a desert of despair. And what does Yoon-Seo do? He puts on his sunglasses, and goes under the guise of his pen name, 추월색 (Chuwolsaek, Autumn Moonlight), on his road to find the happiness lost. Believe it or not, Park Joong-Hoon wasn't the only one enjoying his life as a 'rock star' in the making in the early days, even Han Suk-Gyu passed from the stage. At the tender age of 20, Han entered the 1984 Gangbyeon Gayo Festival, winning a price. This was a little festival which started in 1979, and would feature young hopefuls trying to show their talents (be it singing, doing impersonation, etc.). But he had something else in mind. It was a very small role, but it was just the beginning, so he took it anyway.

It was 1986, and young Han starred in what's widely considered one of the most enjoyable Family Dramas of all time, MBC's 한지붕 세가족 (Three Families). The show won Im Hyun-Shik the best Actor Award four years later at the 1990 Baeksang Awards, and was one of Lee Seung-Ryeol's best works (be it not adapting to the new environment or who knows what, but after moving to SBS Lee hasn't been the same, with some serious stinkers in the last few years). This starred a who's who of some of the best veterans in the industry, with Park Won-Sook, Gang Nam-Gil, Lee Jung-Gil, Yoon Mi-Ra, Choi Ju-Bong, Na Moon-Hee, Gyeon Mi-Ri, and more. What's more interesting though is the amount of young stars who appeared over the 8 years of its broadcast: Shim Eun-Ha, Yang Dong-Geun, Kim Hye-Soo, Kim Won-Hee, Choi Ji-Woo, and guess who... Han Suk-Gyu. Like many stars of his generation, his first 'real' role was in the campus Drama 우리들의 천국 (Our Paradise), and after that Han rarely made bad choices, most of them being big hits or critical successes, sometimes even both. His work in 파일럿 (Pilot) led to the first few important roles of his career, with the amazing 서울의 달 (The Moon of Seoul)--one of the best TV Dramas I've ever seen, from any country--standing out in particular, next to monsters of acting like Baek Yoon-Shik, Choi Min-Shik, Chae Si-Ra and Kim Yong-Geon.

Sure, Han was still a little rough around the edges back then, but he had the kind of charm and screen presence that would instantly tell you this guy was going to make it big. One of my favourite roles of his, for instance, is a little supporting role in the glorious 1994 MBC Drama 도전 (Challenge), where he plays a British-Korean car designer, working wonders just on charm alone. The success of The Moon of Seoul brought Han to the big screen, with the 1995 romcom 닥터봉 (Dr. Bong), more or less a waste of time, but not on financial terms, as the film did quite well at the box office. What happened to Han's career after that should be fairly familiar to anyone even vaguely interested in Korean Cinema, but his turn in the 1996 blockbuster 은행나무 침대 (The Gingko Bed) is quite important vis-a-vis his decision to star in Forbidden Quest: just like in this year's film, he was wearing an hanbok (even if for just a portion of the film), which felt a little awkward to viewers used to his past image. He never starred in anything resembling a Sageuk, or even with tropes of the genre, after that film, until Forbidden Quest. I don't know if it's Han's tremendous improvement over the last 10 years making me see him in a new light with the hanbok, but he's fantastic in this film. He always had a certain air of sophisticated dignity, something he cultivated over the years--there's a reason why his character in 그때 그사람들 (The President's Last Bang) works so well--but it's particularly effective here, mixed with his child-like aura. Known for his very charismatic voice, Han seems born to speak Old Korean, as all his pauses, his speech patterns and facial expressions are spot on. In some ways it reminded me of those actors who tend to only do Historical Dramas, people who have perfected the style so much it's just enjoyable listening to them utter a few words. This is one of the many pleasures of this film, just looking at Han Suk-Gyu act out Yoon-Seo, and that is something Kim Dae-Woo had in mind from the first moment.

Kim was actually a huge fan from the beginning, so much that he wrote an alternative script for The Foul King with Han in mind--and sadly he never published it, the film would probably change completely going from Song to Han. So Kim sent Han the Forbidden Quest script, which impressed him so much he kept going on about how this was the best thing he worked in since The Moon of Seoul, something which would open a new chapter in his career, and a chance which wouldn't come twice. He was right. But Han is not the only one who makes this film work so well. I don't remember the first time I noticed him, that moment when faces start connecting to names, the same way you remember the meaning of words in foreign languages. I'm not sure, but I think the moment when Oh Dal-Soo stopped being a 'nameless face' came with his role in Park Chan-Wook's 올드보이 (Oldboy), as the 'affectionate prison warden' and all his future problems with dentists. I instantly thought this guy had the perfect face for films. And then he kept popping up on films I liked, such as 효자동 이발사 (The President's Barber), 마지막 늑대 (The Wolf Returns) and of course all of Park Chan-Wook's future films. There's a reason why he's become one of the busiest actors in Chungmuro, he simply leaves an impression on you. Every. Single. Time. The chef in 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy For Lady Vengeance), the Busan via Vladivostok weapon dealer in 달콤한 인생 (A Bittersweet Life), the gangster in 마파도 (Mapado: The Island of Fortunes). Notice a trend? Yes, although in varying degrees, all the films I mentioned are good, there isn't a single stinker. Not a single throwaway role. So that certainly helps you gain further appreciation for Mr. Oh.

And that could go even higher if you learned how he got there in the first place. Oh was born in Daegu, but spent most of his childhood in Busan, which is perhaps what gave us his interesting inflection, not quite Busan neither fully Daegu. He's one of the few actors in the industry--another being Song Kang-Ho--not limited by dialect, but actually using it to add to the flavour of it all. What's better is he always shows a certain rhythm through his speech patterns, rhythm which was perfect for Forbidden Quest, as he creates laughter simply by breaking the mood created by the Sageuk setting--the best example being when he tries to offer some constructive criticism to Yoon-Seo. You might ask, where did this guy learn to act so well, as his first film appearance only came in 2002 with 해적, 디스코왕 되다 (Bet on My Disco)? The answer is quite predictable: 16 years of theater, just like many of the best actors in Chungmuro. But it's not like theater was his dream from the beginning. When Oh was in his Freshman year at Dongeui University in Busan (of all majors... Industrial Design!), he was also working part time at a printshop near school.

So one day he was sent to a small theater to deliver pamphlets, where he experienced theater for the first time in his life, seeing a troupe practice for an upcoming play. What happened? Right the day after, Oh started cleaning the hall and emptying trash cans without anyone telling him, which eventually led to a bit role in 오구 (Ogu)--the same play the film 오구 (Ogu: A Hilarious Mourning) was based upon. Oh moved to Seoul in the late 90s, when he started getting leading roles, which led him to establish a theater troupe in 2000--which almost went belly up thanks to the 2002 World Cup, after which he started his film career. So if we can thank tin cans for Jung Chang-Hwa becoming a director, we can thank... pamphlets for letting us enjoy the last 4 years of Oh Dal-Soo's acting career. And from saving him from a life of designing Industrial equipment, I might add. Sure, those two own the film, but don't let that make you believe the rest of the cast isn't just as good. Kim Roi-Ha, a veteran of Kim Jee-woon and Bong Joon-Ho films, makes a complete U-Turn in his career, playing what's perhaps his darkest role as Eunuch Jo, and he's excellent at that. Lee Beom-Soo mixes his priceless facial expressions with the kind of dramatic gravity he hadn't shown since 2004's little gem 슈퍼스타 감사용 (Superstar Mr. Gam), and Ahn Nae-Sang is predictably spot on as the King. But again, another factor making yours truly a happy camper is Kim Min-Jung confirming her place as one of the most talented youngsters in the industry. This role could have ruined the film quite easily, as just bringing in a pretty face wouldn't have cut it.

In the most important moments, she delivers in impressive fashion, and always keeps that intriguing balance between the dignity and sophisticated look of a Palace concubine, and the sad eyes of someone wanting to escape from all that. Forbidden Quest also works so well because there are no wrong notes sticking out, because the ensemble cast, from Han Suk-Gyu to Woo Hyun's hilarious turn as the 'copycat painter' work in perfect harmony. Still, can Sageuk work with acting only? Not quite. The visual allure has always been one of the winning elements of this 'genre', at least in my view. Growing up with Historical Dramas on TV and seeing the evolution in Sageuk-related production values was quite the experience, as we went from the 'one set fits all' shows up until the early-to-mid 90s (which, one must say, were much stronger in terms of storytelling and how that connected to all the historical elements, especially Im Choong's works), to the visual marvel of masterpieces like 신돈 (Shin Don) in all aspects of production values. But Kim didn't want the usual Sageuk look. In contrast with the Goguryeo-based Sageuk broadcasting now or coming soon on TV, especially MBC's 주몽 (Jumong), there's tons of material available concerning the Joseon Dynasty, but more than trying to stick to historical research the focus was on creating a mood that would feel right. This has pretty much become a trend of the genre, with The King and The Clown and Duelist leading the way. And behind the fantastic art direction of this film is one man, repeating his magic after Duelist and 장화, 홍련 (A Tale of Two Sisters): Jo Geun-Hyun.

There's a reason why almost a third of this film's budget went into Art Direction, and that's because through Jo's vision Director Kim wanted to establish something closer to Film Noir (stronger contrasts) sensibilities than the usual Sageuk. Many of the films within this genre make virtual pauses, the equivalent of Ozu's pillow shots to show all the beauty around--think of 궁 (Princess Hours) as the perfect example--but in this film everything is there to support the narrative, which is why you might not see all the beauty hidden in Jo's sets and production design. And the same is true for the costumes, which just like in Duelist try to distance themselves from the 백의민족 (White-Clad People) tradition in portraying the Joseon Dynasty, with some of the most flamboyant costumes of recent memory. The colours weren't just thrown out there, but mixed to complement each other perfectly, and although they might feel a little 'alien' to the usual Sageuk setting, they're all costumes which existed in some way or form during the Joseon Dynasty. It's just that they spoiled us with white for all those years, so anything deviating from it will feel a little weird at the beginning.

Another important factor was the cinematography, and the rhythm of the film. Kim didn't want to create a distinct tempo for the first and second part of the film, by going all comedy and then turning dark all of a sudden. This is why there's always a sort of underlying continuity in mood flowing through the film: there's bits of laugh-out-loud comedy, but it never goes overboard, and even in the darkest moments there's always some little jokes thrown in there. Of course the most important exception is the scene where Yoon-Seo explains the kind of illustrations he wants from Gwang-Heon, while two CGI 'babies' put to practice the positions he's talking about, one of the most creative use of CGI I've seen in a Korean film, and one of the funniest scenes of the year. But the funniest thing is that the CGI only ended up as composite work, because those 'babies' are... Lee Beom-Soo and Han Suk-Gyu themselves, performing those positions in front of a blue screen. And you tell me acting is not a hard job? If anything, this film shows how the destruction of genre itself undergoing in today's Chungmuro has invaded the most traditional and last bastion of genre tropes, the Historical Drama. Between this, Duelist and Lee Joon-Ik's films, Sageuk in Korea is not just a genre anymore, it's a production method, like animation.

You take a familiar setting but with a certain air of unfamiliarity like the Joseon Dynasty (or older periods), and add modern elements to the mix, like the use of dialect to mirror the situation of the Three Kingdoms in 황산벌 (Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield), or the use of comedy here. The biggest strength of the film though is Kim Dae-Woo's wonderful script, and its marvelous dialogue. Back when he worked on Untold Scandal, Kim had to spend weeks researching material about Old Korean, but he wanted something entirely new for this film. Even the use of 'indecent' elements is not what you expect, at least until you learn Kim Dae-Woo was involved in this. At first this film sounded like Sex is Zero in the Joseon Dynasty' because of its title, but that's as far from the final film as possible. Those expecting a Jeon Do-Yeon in 해피엔드 (Happy End)-like turn from young Kim Min-Jung will be disappointed, as the point is not how 'erotic' this film is, but what is erotic, what is indecent in the first place. In a way, it was the right decision: Jung-Bin is the King's woman, she has a certain air of dignity which would suddenly disappear if the amount of sex scenes and nudity went past a certain level, and then the castle of cards built for the entire film would fall in an instant. This is why the sex scenes in the film don't aim to titillate, but create a sense of harmony, of beauty, like a painting (and you'll understand how important that feeling is watching the film).

Yes, because that 진맛 (flavour, true taste) the characters talk about in the film is not simply sex, it's that feeling the readers get reading those novels, that energy the writers feel while working on it. In a way, Yoon-Seo is an evolution of all of Kim Dae-Woo's past characters, especially Im Dae-Ho in The Foul King. As Asura X, in the ring, he's a star, but once he strips the mask he's not much different from the old Im Dae-Ho, with perhaps a little more confidence (as the brilliant coda shows). But Yoon-Seo goes a step further, he goes through all that to reach his happiness, faces the consequences, and then learns some precious lessons from all that. It's very likely people will be put off by the length of this film at first, as almost 2 and a half hours are quite a test for any film. But while a little economy in dealing with some issues of the middle part wouldn't have hurt, I'd say the length never really hurts the film, Forbidden Quest never overstays its welcome. If anything, the almost black comedy-like tone of the proceedings might feel like a fish out of water if you're used to traditional Sageuk. But I see this as the evolution via Sageuk tropes of another The Foul King. It takes a slice of familiar history, adds some modern elements which still connect with the viewers, and stirs it with a gentle hand. Like drinking green tea, slowly. By the time you smell its scent, you've already falling into its charms. Its beautiful sets and stunning costumes, its witty dialogue and great comedy, its top notch performances and direction which never reminds us fact we're dealing with a first timer.

Sometimes I have a hard time watching certain films more than once or twice, no matter how great they are. I've only seen Yoo Hyun-Mok's 오발탄 (The Aimless Bullet) twice, and I haven't looked at Park Chan-Wook's 복수는 나의 것 (Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance) in over two years, despite being one of my favourite films of the decade, whereas I've already seen The Foul King a good 20 times, something like three times a year. Forbidden Quest feels like the latter, it's one of those films that captures you and just asks to be rewatched, to bask in all its little details, things that emerge thanks to the tremendous talent of one of the best writers in Chungmuro, for what is an impressive debut. I can't wait for his next work. Did he do it for love? Did he just use her for his novels? I'll let you decide that after watching the film. But one thing's for sure: Yoon-Seo will end with a smile on his face, just like what I felt after watching this film. Smile because he finally found what he was looking for...

CONTINUES ON PART 2
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