Given the enormous output of the South Korean film industry, even during its occasionally fallow times, it’s not surprising that certain genres and subjects get covered to death. One is the storied Joseon Dynasty, when a good deal of what we know now as Korean culture developed. It was also a fraught time both politically and socially, as the class system that ruled the kingdom resulted in mass starvation and the tribute the court paid to their Ming overlords in China exacted a heavy price, especially in retrospect. In that regard, Hur Jin-ho’s Forbidden Dream is enormously ambitious. It attempts to be the last word not only on the Joseon Dynasty, but on movies about the Joseon Dynasty, even if it focuses on the relationship between two men.
These two men are formidable figures, however. King Sejong (Han Suk-kyu) is a man who seems to think too much about his responsibility as well as his place in history. He came to the throne after a blood bath that killed his father and practically destroyed his kingdom. His fealty to the Ming Dynasty is grudging at best, and, per the title, his own ambition is to make of his country an independent entity. His partner in this endeavor is presented as an impossible confederate. The slave Jang Yeong-sil (Choi Min-sik) has demonstrated a self-taught talent in engineering, and his submission of a plan for a Rube Goldberg-style water clock through the auspices of the royal maintenance division intrigues the king, who orders it be realized in physical form. The result is revolutionary in that the kingdom now has a means of telling time at night and when the sun is not out. Sejong elevates Jang out of slave status and makes him a bureaucrat, much to the chagrin of other bureaucrats, who subsequently try to undermine Yang’s creative ambitions but to no avail, since the king recognizes these ambitions as dovetailing perfectly with his dreams. He quickly commissions his newest “inventor” to build a device for charting the heavens, an order that violates the dictates of the Chinese, whose explicit rule of heaven and earth is inviolable. The king’s purpose is at first practical — farmers of Joseon must follow the Chinese almanac and are thus unprepared for drought and other natural phenomenon — but ultimately ideological. Jang’s armillary proves that Joseon “time” is different from that authorized by Nanking, the capital of Ming. The king finally has something he and his subjects can call their own.
When it sticks to this historical vein, Forbidden Dream is compelling and enlightening, even though it’s obvious that much is speculation. Imagination gets the best of the production when it relies too much on the central relationship of Sejong and Jang, which gets practically matrimonial in its bromantic effusiveness. In a scene that will elicit either tears of empathy or howls of derision, Jang recreates the heavens for the king in his bedchamber by painting the paper doors black and poking holes in strategic spots to represent stars. Polaris is the king, and the bright star next to it, says the monarch with a tearful smile, is Jang. This relationship, naturally, must be tested to the extreme, and the script ties itself into knots temporally using a flashback-within-a-flashback structure that posits a near fatal accident involving a palanquin as the lever with which Jang’s fate is decided in the greater scheme of history. As often happens with Asian historical epics, the attendant court intrigue assumes the viewer has some understanding of the way ministers and their opposites think, and without such understanding the motivations feel weak. The biggest opportunity lost during this part of the film is the idea that the Korean writing system, Hangul, was invented by the king as inspired by Jang’s example. A syllabary exclusive to the Korean language was both revolutionary and heretical since it allowed all people, and not just the educated upper classes, to pursue literacy, and it distinguished Joseon from all other civilizations, including China’s.
In the end, it’s the movie’s emotional sincerity that fall flat, especially when considered in light of the care that Hur and his writers have put into the story, which shows dramatic verve and a lot of intelligence. There is too much time given over to Jang and Sejong making moony eyes at each other or squaring off in jealous rage. It’s great that these class distinctions can be so readily transcended, but a little of this goes a long way, and it’s a long movie to begin with.
In Korean and Chinese. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).
Forbidden Dream home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2020 Lotte Entertainment