Saturday, November 07, 2009

Light Reading: Forbidden Quest

Forbidden Quest
Directed by Kim Dae-woo
Pathfinder Entertainment

Kim Yoon-seo, a modest government inspector, will be lucky if fifty copies are printed of his latest work. That is because he is writing dirty books in Joseon era Korea, breaking the obscenity laws he is charged with enforcing. Still, he builds a considerable pass-along readership in writer-director Kim Dae-woo’s Forbidden Quest (trailer here), now available on DVD.

Though well regarded as a scholar, Kim Yoon-seo’s colleagues think little of him, considering him timid and ineffectual. He is also a budding pornographer, writing under the pen-name Chu Wol Sek, after encountering the work of a competitor during the course of an unrelated investigation. At the same time, he has attracted the attention of Jung-bin, the king’s favorite concubine. Rashly, Chu Wol Sek encourages her flirtations, while using her as the muse and model for his explicit serial novel. Right, what could possibly go wrong with that?

Throughout Quest, Kim tries to have it both ways with his subject matter. At times, Chu Wol Sek bemoans the corrosive effect of his indecent thoughts. More often, the audience is invited to vicariously enjoy the scholar’s naughty transgressions. Still, editors will probably take amusement from Chu Wol Sek’s literary jealousies and insecurities, as indecent as they might be.

Quest’s period detail is very well crafted, particularly the striking costumes, which mostly remain safely secured throughout the film. In truth, aside from some deliberately outrageous pornography read aloud, Chu Wol Sek’s story is surprisingly chaste. It still is probably not appropriate for children though, particularly given the practice of torture as an investigational technique.

Han Suk-kyu handles the awkward reserve of the indecent writer quite convincingly, but he is a bit flat as a leading man. Kim Min-jung however, makes a strong impression as Jung-bin. Cruel one minute than vulnerable the next, she consistently keeps viewers intrigued with her presence.

Quest can be frustrating, briefly flirting with several themes, only to quickly abandon them. However, it is far superior to obvious comparison films, like Philip Kaufman’s Quills. A great looking production with plenty of intrigue, it should be a good fix for most connoisseurs of Korean cinema.