Forbidden Dream (South Korea, 2019) [NYAFF 2020]

Continuing his recent historical costume drama run, rather than the contemporary-set tearjerkers featuring terminally ill patients and lovers for which he is primarily known in South Korea, Hur Jin-ho’s most recent feature, Forbidden Dream, retells the story of the relationship between a Joseon dynasty king, Sejong the Great (Han Suk-kyu) and a slave, Jang Yeong-sil (Choi Min-sik), who the king promotes to become one of the country’s top scientists. After his 2012 adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons set in 1930s Shanghaiand 2016’s Last Princess, which followed the trials of Princess Deokhye in early twentieth-century Japan as she attempted to return home, Hur returns to South Korea with a story that seeks to evoke national pride in both the country’s history and an economic/professional system that recognizes talent from whatever class strata it originates from.

As is often the case with Hur’s films, Forbidden Dream features strong performances from his leading actors, which here includes Choi, one of South Korea’s most prolific leading men, known to many international viewers for his role in Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy (2003). Unfortunately, these performances themselves cannot keep the viewer invested in the film or its characters over its lengthy running time. Too much of the its non-linear narrative fails to invest us in its characters, unlike the films that Hur began his career with.

Forbidden Dream attempts to create a sense of tension from the beginning. The king’s palanquin falls apart on a journey and many suspect foul play, even the possibility that Jang Yeong-Sil, who designed the palanquin, tampered with it and attempted to harm Sejong. Four days prior to the palanquin’s collapse, the Chinese Ming Dynasty, to which Joseon was a tributary, denounces attempts by the king and his empire to have their own time standard and their attempts to conduct their own astronomical research. Additionally, the Ming Dynasty orders that the person, Jang, who created the instruments used in these experiments be brought forward for judgement. The rest of the first half functions as a flashback, which introduces us to Jang, how he impressed the king with his experiments and mechanical designs as a slave, and the evolution of their friendship and working relationship. In its second half, imperial court intrigue threatens Jang and Sejong’s work, all of which is done in the service of providing a foundation for the country to stand on its own two feet, not only through technological and scientific achievements, but also through the development of a written Korean language.

Much of this story, especially in the initial hour and a half, is rather dull. What makes the film tedious is its inability to connect us to its characters, a problem Hur never had in his earlier work. By only reading the descriptions of Hur’s pre-Dangerous Liaisons oeuvre, many may be misled into thinking that the films are run-of the-mill South Korean melodramas or soap operas. Hit play on nearly any South Korean drama series on Netflix and you are bound to run into plots similar to those that you would encounter in Hur’s films, such as Christmas in August (1998), Happiness (2007) or Season of Good Rain (2009): someone finds out they or their paramour are dying, or that a love interest has trouble falling in love again after losing a spouse to death, and romantic chaos erupts. However, in these films Hur often utilizes long takes that observe characters as they process the emotions they experience and envisage their own deaths or the loss of loved ones. The choice to avoid relying on the film’s score and the tragic circumstances of the characters’ situations and focus on the actors’ performances gives us a path to empathy.

In Hur’s earlier films, his stylistic use of the long take enables the viewer to contemplate the characters and their tribulations and relate to them. This technique is largely absent from Forbidden Dream. There are moments in the film when actors, especially Choi, are delivering strong performances but the film rushes through these scenes too quickly to return to the film’s not particularly thrilling story. Of course, filmmakers have different methods of engaging viewers in their films and none of them are obliged to use the style described above in order to involve their audiences. But given the powerful performers he has to work with here, Hur’s abandonment of his previous style removes the qualities that would likely make Forbidden Dream a historical drama as distinctive and emotionally affective as his contemporary pieces are from those of other filmmakers.

Forbidden Dream is streaming as part of the New York Asian Film Festival which runs from August 28 to September 12.