Striking a subtle balance between outright pornography and an ostensibly sexually provocative movie is easier said than done. However, "Forbidden Quest
" (Eumranseosaeng) manages to pull off a feat of mixing the two elements in a clever way that teases voyeuristic moviegoers.
Director Kim Dae-woo
, who has built his name as a top screenplay writer, knows when he has to go for cheap sex scenes: Never. There are some risque scenes, but you-know-what parts of actors' bodies remain duly covered by colorful costumes throughout the movie.
Don't despair yet - because Kim also knows when he has to spray tantalizing erotic allusions and racy jokes: Always. From the very first scene to the last, there is no shortage of sexual symbols, obscene drawings, realistic bedroom postures, and playful suggestions about physical attractions.
The movie is concerned not only about the irresistible sexual drive but also about a writer's insatiable desire to produce an addictive hit that catches the heart - and possibly other sensitive organs - of readers. The movie revolves around the transformation of Yoon-seo (Han Suk-kyu
), a respectable scholar and government official during the Joseon Dynasty. He has an impeccable character and excellent writing skills, and tries not to get entangled in dirty factional strife among the yangban bureaucrats.
The only drawback of his exemplary life is that it's lethally boring. Yoon-seo's ennui, however, doesn't last long because he encounters one of the greatest excitements in his entire life - an erotic novel.
He happens to read one of the popular adult novels circulated among low-class people in Seoul, and gets fascinated by the sheer power of its narrative and the boldness of expressions.
Once the gate is open, a flood of emotions hit Yoon-seo's head. And one of such emotions is that he wants to test his writing skill in the low-brow literature as well. His secretive adventure takes off with the help of the professional publishers and distributors who double as pot sellers during the day.
To his great joy, Yoon-seo's first installment of a serialized novel gets favorable reviews from the lower class readers. Using a pen name 'Chuwolsaek', Yoon-seo gleefully dabbles in the new genre that saves no sexual punches in describing racy situations. But it turns out that his writing talent is a tad bit insufficient to capture the No. 1 slot.
Disappointed at the fact that his title ranks No. 2, Yoon-seo - a highly motivated writer now - comes up with a novel idea of revolutionizing the erotic novel market. He teams up with Gwang-heon (Lee Beom-soo
), a ranking government official in charge of chasing criminals for the furtive project. Gwang-heon's new, worthy task? Drawing candid illustrations of characters in action in the lewd novel written by Yoon-seo.
A number of small jokes involve the duo's tireless quest to find fresh ways to depict pornographic scenes as realistically as possible. Various poses are demonstrated for the illustrations, using willy-nilly volunteers. Yoon-seo seems to have too many ideas about erotic situations that need both verbal and visual portrayals. In return for his passion for writing a new type of novels, Chuwolsaek is now the talk of the town.
The movie constantly reminds the viewers that sex is the main topic here, particularly regarding the duplicate nature of the upper class during the Joseon period. The director often pokes fun at the pretentiousness of the yangban about sex.
But hidden behind the humorous attacks on the sexual limitations in a rigid class society lies the director's ambition to put some parallel between what he has written as a movie script and the erotic novel by Yoon-seo. Writers, after all, are dying to get their works received wildly by readers and cash in on the commercial success of the books - be it a serious literature or a pornographic novel. It is hardly surprising that viewers will be tempted to compare director Kim's efforts to produce a gracefully provocative tale with Yoon-seo's dedication to the erotic novel genre.
But the movie goes a step further about the definition of fiction - or the danger of writing non-fiction. Most fictions are partly inspired by some real facts or people, and Yoon-seo also has a person in mind when he embarks on the tumultuous writing path. But who really wants to be portrayed in an erotic novel?
But this kind of discussions about where we should draw the line between fiction and reality can be overdone. What is likely capture the imagination of the audiences is Han Suk-kyu
's refined portrayal of the Joseon's top porno writer and inspiring acting by Lee Beom-soo
and Kim Min-jung
, who plays a voluptuous court lady.
Powerful visual coordination also adds to the dramatic effect. Brilliantly redesigned Joseon costumes are fashionable and the color of red - a symbol of sexual passion and blood - abounds at key scenes, intensifying the visual impact.
What the movie fails to strike a balance, though, is the convoluted and weird mix of comedy and melodrama. A wholly light-hearted sexual comedy might have worked better for some viewers. After all, it's director Kim's passion for hitting it big at the box office that embraces both genres - a weakness that is mirrored by Yoon-seo's desire to become the No. 1 writer in both high-brow and low-brow literary worlds.
By Yang Sung-jin