Technology is a great motivator for social change, which is one reason why there are those who would prefer to shut it down before it exists, afraid of the threat it poses to their own power and status. Best known for tearjerking romantic melodrama, Hur Jin-ho follows historical epic The Last Princess with a quietly nationalistic journey back to the Joseon era in which calls for greater sovereignty perhaps incongruously go hand in hand with progressive politics which see the good king Sejong (Han Suk-kyu) agitate for greater social equality through the democratisation of knowledge. This is his “Forbidden Dream” (천문: 하늘에 묻는다, Cheonmun: haneul-e mudneunda), the existence of a “fair” society in which anyone can read, write and learn regardless of the social class into which they were born.

Apparently inspired by the mysterious disappearance of legendary court inventor Jang Yeong-sil (Choi Min-sik) from the annals despite his close friendship with the king, Hur sets his tale in the 1440s during which time Korea is a tributary of the Ming. The problem with that is that though Korea remains a sovreign nation and Sejong its king, the Ming have positioned themselves as the culturally superior arbiters of knowledge. Facing persistent famines, Sejong is convinced that the key to agricultural prosperity lies in getting rid of the Ming almanac and using their own time zone which is better suited to the Korean Peninsula and will allow their farmers to make the best use of their land. The Ming, predictably, do not like his idea and are forever sending envoys to tell him to stop trying to “improve” on their technology. Nevertheless, he persists which is how he comes to meet Jang Yeong-sil, a technological genius whose innate talent has brought him to the palace despite the fact that he was born a slave. 

In Yeong-sil, the perhaps lonely king Sejong discovers a kindred spirit, the two men quickly, and transgressively, speaking as equals when it comes to developing their new technology. Giddy as schoolboys, they work on their inventions together for the betterment of the people, beginning with building a water clock to better indicate the time when the sun goes down. Sejong frees Yeong-sil and makes him a “5th rank scientist”, gifting him the clothes of a gentleman, but his open hearted egalitarianism sets him at odds with his ambitious courtiers who resent being forced to share their space with a former slave, puffed up on their feudal privileges that convince them advancement is a matter of name and intrigue. 

Just as Hur suggested in The Last Princess that the courtiers sold their country out because of an internalised sense that Korea was small and backward and could not stand alone, so Sejong’s ministers begin to abandon him and turn their fealty to the Ming. Sejong believes in Korean independence, certain that only by standing free can the country prosper and the people be happy. Others however fear Sejong’s “forbidden dream” of a more equal society knowing that it necessarily means a lessening of their own power and the privilege they feel themselves entitled to. Besides timekeeping, Sejong has also been working on a new alphabet which will further set them apart from the culture of the Ming. The ability to read and write using Chinese characters which Sejong feels are not perhaps well suited to Korean has hitherto been reserved for the elite. Sejong’s alphabet which will eventually become the Hangul still in use today removes the barriers to knowledge which ensure the rule of the few can never be challenged while also reinforcing the idea of a cultural Koreanness which is valid in its own right, equal to that of the Ming, and obviously a better fit for his people who will then be able to create glorious inventions of their own. 

Hangul is the “something eternal that no country can take away” that Sejong dreamed of as his legacy, but it’s also the thing that costs him his transgressive friendship with Yeong-sil as his courtiers reject his internal challenge to the social order, favouring the feudal certainties of the Ming over his revolutionary kingship. Undeniably homoerotic in the depths of its sincerity, the attachment of the two men, a slave and a king, is embodiment of Sejong’s forbidden dream as a symbol of a better world where all are free to innovate. “Class does not matter” he tells Yeong-sil as they stare up at the stars, “what matters is that we look at the same sky and share the same dream”. That better world, however, will be a long time coming, Yeong-sil a martyr punished for his class transgression but making a personal sacrifice on behalf of the king who was also his friend so he can bring about his forbidden dream of an independent Korea powered by cutting edge technology created by men like him with fine minds from all walks of life. Well, perhaps there’s still some work to do, but you get there in the end. Anchored by the magnetic performances of its two veteran leads, Forbidden Dream does not entirely escape the pitfalls of the Joseon-era drama with its palace intrigue and complex interpersonal politics, but is at its best when celebrating the intense friendship of two men united by the desire to innovate even if that innovation is not always convenient for the world in which they live.


Forbidden Dream streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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