South Korean historical drama film “Forbidden Dream” puts its two well-known real-life figures into a sappy old-fashioned bromance tale which did not engage me much. Although I have no problem with its many fictional aspects, the movie is rather flat, trite, and hollow in terms of story and characters, and I only came to observe it from the distance without much care or attention while distracted by its overtly melodramatic approach at times.
The story of the movie mainly revolves around the longtime relationship between King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty (Han Suk-kyu) and a royal court official named Jang Yeong-sil (Choi Min-sik), who is still highly regarded as one of the most brilliant inventors in the Korean history. Although Jang was often disregarded for being a commoner at the lowest social level during that time, he came to work in the royal court thanks to his exceptional skills in crafts and engineering, and King Sejong did not hesitate to support and promote Jang after recognizing Jang’s talents, though their productive relationship, which led to a number of notable inventions such as rain gauge, was terminated due to an unfortunate incident in 1442.
After the opening part showing the aftermath of that incident, the movie moves back to when King Sejong met Jang for the first time in 1421. As your average bookworm, King Sejong is eager to read a bunch of books delivered from China, but, alas, many of them are not exactly in fine condition due to a problem during the delivery process, and, as one of commoners working in the royal court, Jang comes to handle one of these damages books, which happens to be about water clock. When the king visits and then shows some interest in water clock, Jang explains to his king a bit on water clock, and, what do you know, he soon finds himself assigned to the development of a water clock for the royal court.
After a brief obligatory montage scene showing Jang working on the development of the water clock, King Sejong and his high-ranking royal court officials behold the final result, and they are all impressed by how precisely and correctly Jang’s water clock works. Despite the strong objections from many of his high-ranking court officials, the king orders Jang’s social/professional promotion, and Jang is certainly very grateful to his king for that while being ready for more ideas and inventions.
In fact, King Sejong has another project for Jang: the development of a big celestial globe for astronomical studies. The king strongly believes that, for helping the people of his kingdom more, it is necessary to conduct independent astronomical studies instead of depending on the ones from China, and he shares his belief with Jang in private as they lay on the ground and then watch the night sky together at one point in the film. No, there is not anything gay about this moment, but I must confess that, as observing how tenderly and amiably Jang and King Sejong talk with each other on those bright stars in the sky, I could not help but feel an urge to utter a certain common phrase: “Get a room.”
Again, Jang does not disappoint his king at all as diligently working on the development of the celestial globe, and King Sejong is certainly excited and delighted by his favorite inventor’s latest output, but then there comes a big problem. China is not so amused about the independent astronomical studies in Korea, and King Sejong finds himself in a tricky diplomatic circumstance when a smug Chinese envoy demands that Jang should be immediately arrested and then transferred to China.
And then that aforementioned accident occurs, and we get a solemn fictional account on the eventual end of the relationship between King Sejong and Jang, but that does not work as well as intended because they are not particularly compelling characters from the start. Sure, the movie is utterly sincere and serious about how much they care about each other, but they are not presented with enough personality and humanity, and the story merely rolls them toward its inevitable arrival point without generating enough insight or interest for us.
At least, the two lead actors of the movie did their best with their respective parts, and they acquit themselves well on the whole. Han Suk-kyu, who previously collaborated with director Hur Jin-ho in “Christmas in August” (1998), looks as regal and authoritative as required while showing some sense of humor from time to time, and he is complemented well by Choi Min-sik, who has been always dependable since he drew my attention for the first time with his hilarious supporting turn in Kim Jee-won’s “The Quiet Family (1998). In case of the other notable main cast members in the film, most of them are under-utilized in comparison as filling their thankless roles as demanded, but Kim Hong-pa and Shin Goo manage to leave some impression at least as two different high-ranking royal court officials.
While it is a well-made period drama film with some admirable technical aspects including its top-notch production design and costume, “Forbidden Dream”, which happens to be the first South Korean film I watched in this year, does not entertain me enough due to its pedestrian storytelling and characterization, and, above all, it does not go beyond what I know about King Sejong and Jang Yeong-sil. Here are two exceptional historical figures who are fascinating in many aspects, but the movie does not try anything particularly new or refreshing, and that is really a letdown for me.