[Korean Movie Night NY continues with Kim Dae-Woo’s Forbidden Quest. If you live in New York City, you can see this film for free at the Tribeca Cinemas tonight (April 10th) at 7 PM. More information can be found here.]
I know nothing about erotic fiction. In fact, I tend to forget it exists. I know about fanfiction, and I know there is some kind of overlap there, but straight up erotic fiction eludes me. So I went into Forbidden Quest, a movie about erotic fiction, very unsure about what I was going to be seeing (or reading). Would it be like those romance novels at the checkout counter of a grocery store?
Having not actually read any of those romance novels, I can’t really tell you how it compares on an erotic level, but I’ll bet you Forbidden Quest is a hell of a lot less romantic.
Forbidden Quest (Eumranseosaeng | 음란서생)
Director: Kim Dae-Woo
Country: South Korea
I don’t remember the first time I read the word “genitals.” But in today’s world, that isn’t an event. You probably see that word when you’re eight, not forty-eight. It’s just part of the world we all live in. But it’s not a part of the world that Yun-seo (Han Suk-Kyu) lives in. Yun-seo is an aristocrat and as prim and proper as you would expect. At least until he happens upon an old man (Kim Ki-Hyeon) copying a pornographic text. Although the text is illegal, Yun-seo cannot bring himself to call for the old man’s arrest. Instead, the text shocks him to his loins, and the word “genitals” (as far as I can tell, specifically referring to female genitalia) sticks in his mind.
He soon decides to become an erotic writer. And not just any old writer, the best erotic writer. It’s never quite clear where his sexual experience comes from (or if he actually has much), but he nonetheless creates stories that make all of the housewives of the city swoon. Even so, he has a rival (who exists only to be a rival and has no actual place in the film). So he has to figure out how to take it to the next level.
But it’s not all about the writing. While all of this is going on, Yun-seo is having some sort of scandalous relationship with Queen Jung-Bin (Kim Min-Jung). Jung-Bin seems to have a rather loose set of morals, and seduces Yun-seo, and how could he say no? It’s one of those unfortunate Catch-22s, where giving in and being caught could have terrible consequences, but a rejection could be just as bad. Although he seems to fight it at first, eventually Yun-seo gives in, for some admittedly questionable reasons.
In fact, a lot of what Yun-seo does is questionable. There’s the obvious illegality of the act of writing pornography in the first place. But the way he manipulates people into helping his stories be better than his competition is sometimes difficult to defend. His loyalty to his fellow workers, however, is admirable, and he undergoes quite a bit of punishment without giving in. I don’t think he could easily fall into a hero or antihero category. He’s somewhere in between, depending on who he is dealing with.
As an exercise in sexuality, Forbidden Quest is titillating but offers no real release. There are only a few moments of actual sex (most of them are simulated among Yun-seo and his helpers to give the illustrator something to work from), and all of them cut off before anything really happens. This is not really a problem so much as it is unexpected. Director Kim Dae-Woo also directed the intensely sexual film The Servant, which had an excessive amount of onscreen sex, so I assumed that this film would follow in that same vein. It doesn’t. All of the nudity onscreen is illustrated, and the most revealing moments show the entirety of a woman’s back.
Instead, Forbidden Quest focuses on violence (something I wish The Servant had featured more of). And there’s quite a lot of it, both comedic and dramatic. It spices up the film, and keeps things moving at a brisk pace. Yun-seo is doing a lot of illegal things, and there has to be some sort of repercussions for them. The violence itself is primarily weapons based, and the use of a bull penis as a weapon (apparently known as a bull pizzle) was appropriate given the film’s content. But there are some truly unpleasant moments, especially when torture is involved, and it definitely darkens the film’s tone, especially in the latter half.
As I think about it now, the entire love subplot is really pretty dark, but the writing plot is consistently humorous. The scenes where the characters are trying to think up poses or throwing around ideas of how and where the story should go are really great, and I laughed a lot. Aside from just being generally funny, though, the ridiculousness of the whole thing is really why I enjoyed it so much, and that ridiculousness comes from an inability to relate to the situations. The idea that the women of the city secretly come to get erotic books in the dead of night by basically using codewords is bizarre, and seems so foreign to me. But it’s probably accurate, and that makes it funny. I imagine that the film has little basis in reality, but it does not actually seem unrealistic.
And I think that’s true about period pieces in general, but especially in the case of films like Forbidden Quest. There’s enough disconnect between American and Korean cultures already that going hundreds of years into the past may as well be like going five hundred years into the future. But then again, there are things that are still the same, across cultures and across the centuries: the disconnect between the aristocracy and the rest of the population and the perceived filthiness of pornography. It’s sad that these things haven’t changed. But then again, if they had, Forbidden Quest wouldn’t exist. Was it worth it? … No, probably not.
I went into The Servant expecting Forbidden Quest, and I went into Forbidden Quest expecting The Servant 2: Servant Harder. The first time I was disappointed, but this time I was elated. Forbidden Quest is not necessarily the movie that The Servant should have been, but it’s definitely the film I wanted it to be. It’s funny, intense, and violent. It’s got romance, sure, and the big declaration of love at the film’s climax is one of its lowest points, but the romance is not the point. The sex is not the point.
Which is a good thing, because sex in movies is boring.