Forbidden Dream (천문: 하늘에 묻는다, Hur Jin-ho, 2019)

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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The Contact (접속, Chang Yoon-hyun, 1997)

The Contact poster 1Even in 1997, it was supposedly much easier than ever before to make contact with pretty much anyone anywhere in the world, yet most of use chose not to. Twenty years later, perhaps not much has changed as we remain increasingly disconnected in an evermore connected world. Sometimes, however, as a radio host’s opening monologue reminds us, life has you take the long way round and it’s not until you hit a bump in the road that you start to think about what’s really important. The melancholy heroes of Chang Yoon-hyun’s The Contact (접속, Jeopsok) are each reeling from romantic disappointment, but brought together by a series of coincidences eventually find an outlet for their woes in the newfangled world of online chat.

Dong-hyeon (Han Suk-kyu) is the producer of a successful radio show but constantly in trouble with the suits for his uncommercial music choices. When someone anonymously sends in a battered copy of The Velvet Underground’s self titled album, he decides to switch up the order and play Pale Blue Eyes partly out of a sense of nostalgia and partly because he is hoping the woman he suspects may have sent it will be listening.

Meanwhile, across town, Soo-hyeon (Jeon Do-yeon) is sharing a moment with a cheerful young man, Ki-cheol (Choi Cheol-ho), who turns out not to be her boyfriend, but that of her roommate. To get away from the pain of seeing them cosied up together, she goes out for a drive and turns the radio on for company just as Dong-hyeon drops the needle on Pale Blue Eyes. So moved by the song that she only narrowly escapes a multi-car pileup, Soo-hyeon writes in to request it again which leads Dong-hyeon to wonder if she’s his old flame using an alias. Obviously, she isn’t, but excited to get an email from a radio show producer and not wanting to disappoint him she lies and says the request was for her friend who might be the one he’s looking for.

A pair of brokenhearted romantics, Dong-hyeon and Soo-hyeon are old souls who like rainy days and going to the movies in the afternoon but they’re also intensely online and attuned to the possibilities of indirect communication. Despite the “instant” nature of modern technology, the pair send intermittent emails, leave messages on answerphones, and fax each other, only sometimes replying in the moment via IRC but communicating on a much deeper level than they might have meeting face to face. Because they live in a city and have much more than they know in common, they unwittingly slip past each other with improbable frequency but would likely never meet, the act of making “contact” in person all but an impossibility.

The curiously analogue, nostalgia-laden, and above all physical device of the LP brings the pair together through a shared sense of loneliness born of frustrated love as they attempt to support each other through differing stages of romantic grief. While Dong-hyeon remains wilfully trapped in the past, mooning over an old flame while blaming himself for possibly coming between the woman he knew did not love him and the man she did, Soo-hyeon is in the thick of it struggling with her feelings for her roommate’s boyfriend. Calling himself “Happy End” because he’s read about them in books but doesn’t believe they exist in the “real” world, Dong-hyeon gives Soo-hyeon contradictory advice while making an ill-advised romantic overture to straightforward writer Eun-hee (Chu Sang-mi) who, unlike Dong-hyeon and Soo-hyeon, knows exactly what she wants and isn’t afraid to state it directly. “Why can’t you be honest with your feelings?” she repeatedly asks Dong-hyeon, but predictably gets no reply.

Soo-hyeon meanwhile has given herself the rather depressing name of “female 2” online, apparently inspired by a series of walk-on parts in plays, but perhaps hinting at her categorisation of herself as an invisible face in the crowd while also ironically pointing at her awkward position as the third wheel in her friend’s relationship. Berated for his emotional diffidence by Eun-hee, Dong-hyeon nevertheless tells Soo-hyeon she’s better off to forget Ki-cheol if she can’t find the courage to tell him how she really feels but as good as his advice sounds it’s primed to backfire, potentially costing not just one but two friendships and seeing Ki-cheol disappear from her life forever. Braver than Dong-hyeon, she resolves to give it a go and whatever happens it will at least answer a question, putting an end to the continued suffering of being merely friends with the man she loves.

Perhaps out of a sense of guilt for having selfishly prioritised his own feelings with tragic consequences, Dong-hyeon has decided to keep them to himself, but if so it’s also made him casually cruel and infinitely insensitive. Giving up on his romantic dream, he contemplates running away and starting a new life abroad, while Soo-hyeon risks everything in pursuit of love. Not knowing how to connect with her in the offline world, Dong-hyeon once again resorts to the physical in order to make contact, waving a tiny document like a one-way passport to love in order prove his identity and romantic destination. Finally finding the strength to let go of lost love and take a chance on new ones, the pair shift their relationship from digital to analogue as they, ironically, resolve to leave the past behind for more connected future.


The Contact was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Rampant (창궐, Kim Sung-hoon, 2018)

Rampant posterKorean cinema has well and truly fallen in love with zombies. You might have heard of zombie kings lingering on while ambitious underlings run the show to ensure their own succession, but you’ve never seen one quite like this. Kim Sung-hoon’s Rampant (창궐, Changgwol), arriving mere months before similarly themed Netflix TV show Kingdom, sends the zombie apocalypse back to the Joseon-era. Incorporating the political intrigue and courtly machinations the genre is known for, Rampant is ultimately less a tale of battling undead threat than of fighting for a humane future ruled over by a good king who purifies the kingdom and commits himself to the service of his people.

Our hero, Ganglim (Hyun Bin), was raised among the Qing and feels himself to be more Chinese than Korean – he isn’t even very comfortable with the language and wants nothing more than to go “home” where all the pretty ladies are. The reason he’s come “back” to Korea is that his brother, the Crown Prince (Kim Tae-woo), feared for his safety and asked Ganglim to escort his pregnant wife to the Qing out of harm’s way. The major problem is that the elderly king is weak and many in his court believe he has failed to stand up to the Qing, damaging Korean sovereignty. Unbeknownst to Ganglim, the Crown Prince has already committed suicide to take responsibility for a treasonous plot to usurp the king using firepower purchased from the Dutch. Inconveniently, this also means that Ganglim is now heir to the throne which is very much not something he is particularly interested in. Romantic as he is, however, he can’t pass up the chance to avenge his brother’s death while fulfilling his dying wish of saving his wife and unborn child.

Meanwhile, that Dutch ship was carrying more than guns. Strange flesh eating “night demons” have overrun the harbour town of Jemulpo and are slowly staggering forward under the cover of darkness ravaging as they go. Wandering into the fray, Ganglim is eventually accosted by a band of “rebels” previously loyal to his brother who, alone, are busy defending the innocent townspeople by disposing of the zombie corpses before they can do more harm.

Ganglim too is originally unwilling to help, not quite believing the tale he’s been told and then affirming that it’s not much to do with him while he concentrates on concluding his mission so he can get back to Qing. Nevertheless he gradually begins to accept his responsibility through realising it affords him an opportunity to be dashing and heroic. Meanwhile, there is conspiracy afoot in the court. Evil defence minister Kim Ja-joon (Jang Dong-gun) is still intent on seizing the throne to create a new Korea free of Qing of influence and is not above using the zombie threat as a part of his plan.

The conflict is then the familiar one of good kings and bad, or the rightful heir and an unscrupulous usurper. Ganglim, a self-centred libertine who thinks of little else than beautiful women, is not looking for the kind of responsibility which comes with a crown which of course makes him the perfect person to inherit it. Little by little, beginning to care for his small band of rebels and the townspeople they help to save, Ganglim embraces his nobility and commits himself to the service of his people. The king, he discovers, is a servant of his subjects – not the other way around as Kim would have it. Watching the old world burn, he vows to build a better one founded on more egalitarian principles with fairness and accountability at its centre.

The zombies become a kind of metaphor for the corruption which is literally devouring the kingdom and must be purified by Ganglim’s righteous fire. Kim’s revolution has destabilised the nation through unexpected foreign influence which he, ironically, attempts to turn to his advantage little caring if it costs the lives of his fellow Koreans who are, after all, only peasants and therefore not really worth caring about. Kim Sung-hoon brings painterly aesthetics to the classically inspired tale of true kings and righteous hearts while letting the zombies do their thing in true genre fashion as Joseon prepares to save itself from the rot within by beheading the monster before before it has a chance to bite.


Rampant was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽, Lee Kwang-kuk, 2015)

matterofinterpretation_keyartFirst published on UK Anime Network – review of Lee Kwang-kuk’s A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽, Ggumboda Haemong).


Romance Joe director Lee Kwung-kuk returns to the director’s chair with a another meta take on modern Korean life only this time he’s interested in the nature of dreams vs reality. A Matter of Interpretation is, ironically, a little closer to Lee’s mentor Hong Sang-soo thanks to its repeated dream motifs but always stands at a slightly more abstracted angle than the comparatively more realistic Hong. Building on the promise of Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation further marks Lee out as a talent to watch in modern Korean cinema.

The film begins with a group of performers nervously waiting in a rather circus-like theatre before eventually deciding to cancel the performance because no tickets have been sold. Yeon-shin, the star actress, storms out and goes for a smoke in a nearby park. Her boyfriend eventually finds her and they talk about the film project Yeon-shin has just been bumped from in favour of a young pop idol. They break up and we time jump to the same bench some point later as Yeon-shin talks to a policeman who, it turns out, can also interpret dreams. Yeon-Shin has had a dream about attempting to commit suicide in an abandoned car only to find a man (who now has the face of Seo, the policeman) tied up in the car’s boot.

The car itself ends up becoming a recurrent theme in the film, appearing in the dreams of multiple people and eventually in reality (maybe?). The policeman (who frequently pulls out a pocket watch and seems to be late for a very important date) interprets Yeon-shin’s dream as being about regret over rashly ending her relationship with her boyfriend and a mixture of guilt and worry that he quit his theatre job soon after and she hasn’t heard from him since. There are other repeated motifs such as the date 7th February circled on a calendar and, like Romance Joe, a pre-occupation with suicide but A Matter of Interpretation proves an apt title for a film that’s so bound up with playful symbolism.

Also like Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation owes a lot to Lee’s mentor Hong Sang-soo. Like Hong, Lee has opted for a concentration of static camera shots with his subjects centrally framed like a conventional landscape photograph albeit with the occasional creeping zoom. However, where Hong can be deliberately repetitious, Lee’s repeated motifs take on a different kind of playfulness – deliberately disorientating us with his mix of dream and reality to the point where we can’t really be sure which of the two is the “real” world. He’s also ported over his love of Alice in Wonderland (or this time Through the Looking Glass) which adds another surrealistic layer of whimsy to the film.

Ultimately, A Matter of Interpretation builds on the promise of Romance Joe to create something that feels much more well thought out as well as much more affecting than Joe’s rather distant atmosphere. Much of this is thanks to Shin Dong-mi’s engaging performance (even more so than her winning turn as the “coffee waitress” prostitute in Romance Joe) as the aging actress Yeon-shin who’s coming to regret some of her previous life choices and wondering how things might have been different. Whimsical is probably the best way to describe the film. It isn’t trying to be deep or profound so much as playfully thoughtful though its complex, interconnecting narrative symbolism is certainly likely to spur post viewing debate. Less contrived and undoubtedly more fun than Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation marks a definite step up for director Lee Kwang-kuk and hints at even more meta tales of playful absurdity to come from this promising director.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.