Go ahead and find some pornographic content. Don’t worry, I’ll wait here for you. Easy, right? I’m sure it only took a couple mouse clicks. Of course it wasn’t always so easy to find such kinds of amusement. Especially not in 17th century Korea. This is where Forbidden Quest is set, as it follows the ribald tale of three upstanding citizens and their clandestine foray into the realm of erotic publishing.
The tale finds the coming together of an inspector, a judge, and a merchant after the first discovers a knack for writing sexually explicit tales, which are not at all acceptable to society. He soon forms an allegiance with someone with the means of producing and distributing the tales, which are reportedly being consumed rabidly by the kingdom’s female servants. Last to complete the trio is an official in charge of administering justice, who is charged by the author with illustrating the taboo literature.
At the same time, a slight gesture of chivalry on the part of the underground author in an encounter with the queen wins her affection and leads to an affair between the two. While dangerous enough in itself, it provides inspirational fuel for the increasingly in demand books.
As the publishing business booms, an undercurrent of gossip spreads on account of connections between the tales and the real life queen. Such humiliation threatens a wrath to fall upon the industrious trio, especially the writer with his most intimate knowledge of her majesty. The bawdiness of the first few acts turn to no small amount of pain and suffering at the hands of methods of torture particular to this ancient time period. Added to the mix are murderous plots and more twisted affairs involving some of the most sinister eunuchs you’ll likely come across.
The movie's strength is its story. It blends a naughty sense of humor with a tale of forbidden passion and revenge in such a way that you are compelled to see it through to its conclusion. Standing out most is the humorous threesome and their very graphic discussions of their productions, filled with physical demonstrations and arguments (naturally, this being a South Korean movie after all). There is even a strange visual prank finding miniature versions of the writer and artist trying to enact a more troubling position (bringing to mind an earlier Korean Movie Night feature, PETTY ROMANCE). Perhaps the notion of three slightly elderly men engaging in these sessions is inherently funny. It is even better if you are familiar with their real life counterparts' tendency for more serious dramatic roles: Suk-kyu Han (the author) has led tense undercover operations in SHURI, while also playing weathered and beaten cops in WHITE NIGHT and A BLOODY ARIA; Dal-su Oh (the merchant), is a fantastic character actor with loads of familiar portrayals of thugs and low lifes in LADY VENGEANCE, OLD BOY, A BITTERSWEET LIFE, as well as sharing the screen again with Suk-kyu in BLOODY ARIA as a violent simpleton; and finally Dong-hyeon Gum (the artist) has played a prisoner in the motley crue of MOSS.
As for the movie’s detractors, i was disappointed by the movie’s cinematography, or lack thereof. This is usually not high on my list of critiques, but throughout Forbidden Quest, I couldn’t help feeling the story was bogged down by lack of innovation here. There is often the same closeup of faces shot from a slight angle to the left, followed by a closeup of faces from shot from a slight angle to the right, varying only with shots that are not zoomed in quite as much.
Also, for a bawdy tale, there is in fact little that can be said to be all that scintillating. While the conversations between the smut peddlers of long ago enter truly taboo territory, none of the actual encounters ignite any sparks. Nothing in the way of costume designs or music help set the mood either. I suppose this could be realistic, as these were chaste times. There is much fretting, for instance, over the notion of the male removing his stiff broad brimmed hat. Still, one would think that a film promising eroticism would find a way to heat these situations up a bit more.
Forbidden Quest is worth giving a look for its solid story and mature sense of humor. It can also boast a satisfying conclusion that even hints at a possible (if not entirely plausible) historical explanation of how pronographic entertainment has developed, in terms of subject matter and technology.
Forbidden Quest is being shown for free this Tuesday, June 5, 7 pm at Tribeca Cinemas. Go to the Korean Cultural Service website for details.
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