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HUR JIN-HO: FORBIDDEN DREAM 천문: 하늘에 묻는다 (2019)

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HAN SUK-KIU, CHHOI MIN-SIK IN FORBIDDEN DREAM

A period celestial bromance with complicated consequences

This is the story of the extremely important 15th century Korean scientist-inventor-engineer Jang Yeong-sil (Choi Min-sik) and King Sejong the Great (Han Suk-kiu), who nurtured his talents. Hur Jin-ho has made a grand and glorious costume drama out of this well known part of Korean history featuring two of the nation's most distinguished actors (united for a second time, the first being for the 1999 thriller Shiri). Korea's dominance by China hangs over this story. Since Yeong-sil's most notable inventions were astronomical, his work was bound to violate the Chinese rule that the skies were a sacred region Koreans were forbidden to broach. Yeong-sil also caused local hostility in the royal court because the free-thinking Sejong had made him, a person of lowly status, a high-ranking advisor. This is the story of the complications of this important relationship, which is both enhanced and diluted by costume drama pomp.

The West has stories like this, like Galileo's, which comes a century or so later. One wants this film to be more intellectual, richer in the science of the time. But perhaps it does the best it can. In any case it is handsome to look at and the moments of intimacy are unique and touching if a bit schmaltzy at times, especially on the part of Choi; Han is more wont to laugh, as if being a radical Joseon dynasty king was all a lark.

In the film it's said that Yeong-sil was initially a slave. Elsewhere he is described as one of the Cheonmin or "vulgar commoners." In any case his discovery and elevation to the status of a court counselor is an important and controversial event. This King Sejong is egalitarian, and also grandiose. In one gesture he selects a star and tells Yeong-sil it's his, that social status doesn't restrict who can own a star, and goes on to say all the stars rank as his personal servants. Perhaps, for his time and place, they truly seemed to be. The grand operatic string orchestra rings out in the background. Yeong-sil and Sejong lie down beside each other and contemplate the stars. By this point, if not before, this has become a real sentimental bromance. During the honeymoon period, Jang designs a special clock and astronomical globe, and many other things not fully described in the film. I wish they were, that one got more of a sense what it was like to be the Leonardo of Korea.

In these activities competition with or defiance of Ming, the Chinese emperor, have to be somehow implied. And this is a great danger, since China is far more powerful and Korea owes fealty to the Chinese emperor.

When King Sejong asks Yeong-sil what reward he would like for his achievements, he answers, "Always to be with you, Sire."

Naturally this can't last. There are courtiers who never liked the raising of a person of such low status to such a high position nor his having the ear of the king - though it's insinuated that years pass before the trouble comes. Yeong-sil has made numerous positive contributions to the country having to do with time and water as well as the stars, and he has advocates in the court. Sejong never personally, fully, turns against him until Yeong-sil forces him to.

Through pressure from the Chinese, Yeong-sil's largest device is torn down - his celestial globe, a grand device, yet primitive by modern standards, of course - and King Sejong himself torches it. Others are afraid to, perhaps disagreeing with its destruction or afraid Sejong is not truly in favor of it. Now King Sejong heads out for Incheon to recover from ill health.

The extended turning point is the collapse of the gama, a large carriage designed by Yeon-sil, in rain and mud and muck while King Sejong is riding in it. This is probably the most demanding of a number of complicated physical reenactments in the film involving elaborate reconstructed period machinery. Miraculously, the king is alive. All the very many royal servants who are found surrounding the crashed gama bow down in the muck - from which King Sejong has emerged chanting in unison, begging to be put to death. Members of the court regularly chant in unison. It's disconcerting; also one of several things that make one feel the film, with its color-coordinated court uniforms, is about to morph into a musical. It's assumed by all that the collapsed wheel of the gama was sabotage: everyone agrees that a gama designed by Yeong-sil simply could not collapse. This seems mistaken, though it shows what regard the man is held in. But if tragedy could strike at Cape Canaveral, why not a broken carriage wheel in the 15th century?

In the wake of this, when the quartet of royal maintenance men are tortured and jailed and Yeong-sil is under investigation and eventually sent to the same cozy cell, it's discovered that he has had in his quarters a little wooden box with some odd squares in it. He professes to know noting of it. This is the beginnings of Hangul, another great innovation during the regime of King Sejong. It's made very clear (though students of Korean culture would not need to be informed) that Hangul was part of Sejong's democratizing, liberal moment by ending the necessity of using Chinese characters, which effectively made literacy in Korea a thing of the aristocratic and powerful. A system of letters (though to us they look like characters), it was created to replace the complicated use of Chinese characters. But use of Chinese writing kept literacy firmly in the hands of the aristocracy. Hangul would make ordinary people able to become literate with easy and writ their own language. So this is part of the story of the period, though how it relates to the relationship between the King and the commoner-sage is a bit complicated, and perhaps a little dry. As Yoon Mitn-sik says in his Korea Herald review, the film "mixes it up" at this point. It blends the bromance, the conflict with China, the carriage accident scandal, and the creation of Hangul and the mix creates tension but not a sense of narrative logic. .

Yeong-sil and King Sejong have another intimate meeting. But Yeong-sil is held with the four maintenance officers for the gama accident. We know Yeong-sil was flogged, but nothing more. An online biography says it's possible he may have survived into the next regime. There's material for another, more purely invented story, perhaps, a great inventor living out his last days in obscurity - like Tesla? But the best part of this film comes early, the star-gazing and bromance moments, where the interaction of these two fine actors is most effective.

Forbidden Dream, /천문: 하늘에 묻는다 (2019), 132 mins., released theatrically in Korea Sept. 2019, and in Japan Dec. 2020. It was screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12). It's currently available for rent on Amazon.

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