Screening for the 19th New York Asian Film Festival, director Hur Jin-ho’s 15th century drama, Forbidden Dream, takes a page from history to shed light on a unique friendship, tried and tested at a precipice of Joseon history.
Written by Jung Bum-sik and Lee Ji-min, the film starts forward in time when the royal palanquin is wrecked with the ailing King Sejong (Han Suk-kyu) still inside. The 1442 incident is but one of several key moments that introduce the core story, beginning twenty years earlier with the entry of Jang Yeong-sil (Choi Min-sik), a low-born slave with a keenness for engineering and a distinct appreciation for stars.
Sejong catches on to Yeong-sil’s adept understanding and thirst for knowledge and handiwork, tasking him to help lead Joseon out of the dark ages and into the future by inventing a clock suited for the kingdom. Even going so far as to pull Yeong-sil from servitude and give him a government title as a state scientist, the King’s conniving cabinet ministers, who are already showing indistinct signs of disloyalty, ultimately disprove of this move.
Sejong and Yeong-sil continue to prosper in the ideas and hopes together, eventually bringing about the invention of a celestial globe, despite the fear of backlash from the Ming emperor. The invention is a success, but with the kingdom’s reliance on Ming Dynasty rule at stake, some of the ministers have already begun acting out without the king’s orders.
Conspiracy, political intrigue and corruption arise, as does talk of betrayal and possible assassination of the king in the days leading up to the wreckage of the King’s palanquin in 1442, while journeying away to recuperate. The big issue however, stems from accusations of theft by the Ming emperor, which ultimately result in the seizure of the King’s celestial globe, its parts, and the scapegoating Yeong-sil and his management team.
Fans of the 1999 blockbuster, Shiri, will find comfort in seeing Han and Choi back on screen again for the first time in years, but it’s Choi who leads the charge with a performance that never lets you forget his range as one of the most influential actors in Korean cinema history. In Yeong-sil, Choi invokes the role of a humble, stoic, loyal servant who even has his own limits, and all thanks to a script that aptly suits his screen caliber.
At the heart of Forbidden Dream, Hur delivers a story ripe with an underlying nationalistic fervor that challenges myopic, patriarchal conservative thought. In the film, we get the story of a king who wanted to do more than just tell the time; [Sejong] wanted citizens to be educated, as a means of seeing Joseon prosper autonomously from Ming rule, and his friendship with Yeong-sil was not only a major motivator in that regard, but a catalyst for something much deeper that puts servitude into perspective.
At well over two hours and twelve minutes, Forbidden Dream bares all the time it needs to pay tribute to an unsung hero whose service to his country speaks even louder than seedy government officials who demand more than they deserve. Centered on the story of a King and a commoner who saw one another without a filter, the film delivers an emotive, palpable and compelling story that translates well to its audience today, and one with gripping, poetic finish suitable for a film of this kind.
NYAFF streams for its 19th installment from August 28 through September 12. Click here to learn more!