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Forbidden Quest

September 3rd, 2006 (04:48 pm)

© 2006 D. Gordon

I had a great time with Forbidden Quest: laughed at the funny parts, worried at the serious parts, then laughed again at the end. But when I tried to explain the movie to Sister Wakasa, I just couldn't do it. Or at least I couldn't do it without spoiling the plot. Let's see if I have better luck this time.

Kim Yun-seo is a government inspector and an official at the king's court. (Admittedly, the Chosun Dynasty lasted a long time, 1392 AD to 1910 AD; but so far in my viewing, historical settings have meant Chosun Dynasty in Korean cinema. And I'm not complaining.) At the start of the film, his brother is brought back home on a cart; apparently he's been set up for a crime and punished by Lee Gwang-heon, another court official (official torturer *snort*) in the Justice Department. Rather than plotting revenge by any means possible, as his family urges, Yun-seo sticks to his "principles" of fairness and his allegiance to the king. Kim thus has a reputation of being mild-mannered to the point of cowardice.

Inspector Kim is also a highly regarded literary scholar. It's while investigating an art forgery for the king that he comes across an underground pornographic novel. He's plenty shocked, but he's also plenty intrigued - intrigued enough to try his hand at writing his own pornographic novel. Of course it ends up being published, and of course it ends up being a bestseller. Thus begins Yun-seo's shadow career, which he falls into wholeheartedly - soon walking about town in a pair of shades, puffing on a long skinny pipe. His world's suddenly taken on a quite a few more shades of color.

And when he needs an illustrator, he's not in the least perturbed to go to... Lee Gwang-heon, the aforementioned torturer and his family's sworn enemy - who also happens to be an excellent illustrator. (Maybe being mild-mannered is more a function of motivation - or lack of it.) When the illustrations prove even more popular than the original books, and Yun-seo finds the inspiration of his life, where else can they go but up?

I found this movie hilarious - and really well done. It plays a bit like a soap opera, but a good soap opera, with twists and turns handled deftly. There are also some ingenious CGI effects as well, but they're not overdone. One example are the miniature characters acting out a conversation between Yun-seo and Gwang-heon. Don't want to spoil it too much, but it's handled for laughs, rather than titillation, and it's very, very well done.

There is a major plot complication (making further description difficult), which causes Yun-seo's fantasy life and real world to collide with major consequences. As you can imagine, this shifts the movie away from its comic tone. But director Kim Dae-woo makes sure that the shift isn't abrupt; the general flow stays consistent, carrying the characters to a solid resolution and tying everything up in the end.

This is also a beautiful picture. I'm still new to Korean film, but one thing I've noticed is the use of colors. Rich red fabrics, shiny copper pots in a darkened shop, golden lamp-lit night streets, even the appropriately arrogant tint in Kim Yun-seo's shades (can't call them glasses). You wonder why you don't see this quality elsewhere.

This is also Kim Dae-woo's first time directing, although he has done a number of notable screenplays, including The Foul King and Untold Scandal (Dangerous Liaisons in a Chosun setting, and definitely on my list), two very popular Korean hits. If this is what to expect from Kim, he'll be one to keep an eye on in the future.