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Forbidden Dream (2019) Korean Film review

Forbidden Dream is the story of the fruitful but ill-fated relationship between two heavyweight historical figures: King Sejong the Great (r.1418–1450) (Han Suk-kyu) and his famous scientist Jang Yeong-sil (Choi Min-sik).

This is the second time that Han Suk-kyu has taken on the role of King Sejong, the most famous of all the Joseon kings.

Back in 2011, in the drama Deep Rooted Tree (SBS), he portrayed an intense and passionate king desperate to finish a new writing system for the people: hangul. 

King Sejong’s Tomb 

Hangul Day 

But in Forbidden Dream, the focus is on the king’s desire to develop science and technology which he can achieve after recognising the talent of a servant who becomes his leading inventor and engineer.

The film celebrates this winning combo of the scientist’s creativity and skill paired with the vision and passion of the king. 

But as we saw in Deep Rooted Tree, not everyone embraces change. Change can be dangerous.


It’s the mid 15th century. Joseon is a tributary state of the Ming Dynasty.  So as Joseon is the little brother, the country must accept the Ming Dynasty as the centre of the world and accept the Emperor as the Son of Heaven.

Chinese characters are still the only writing system in Joseon despite the languages being different. And Joseon uses the astronomical calendar designed for the Ming Dynasty even though the geographical locations of the two countries are not the same. 

But King Sejong dreams of leading an independent country that doesn’t rely so much on its more powerful neighbour.

In a bid for independence, King Sejong develops science and technology in Joseon. He promotes Jang Yeong-sil to lead a team developing technology including water clocks and a celestial globe. 

Of course the king’s plans upset the Ming Dynasty. And there are plenty of ministers in the Joseon government who don’t want to rock the boat with their powerful neighbour. Jang’s low social class is not popular either. So all in all, Jang Yeong-sil has become a problem that needs to be removed. 

China and Korea Ruling Dynasties and Relations Chart


I’d heard of Jang Yeong-sil but didn’t know that he came from the servant class and this adds another dimension to the story that I wasn’t expecting.

Choi Min-sik (who starred in the critically acclaimed film Oldboy, 2003) plays the intense scientist whose passion and frustration leads him to behave quite outrageously at times. I let out a gasp of horror at one point. He really does push the limits magnificently.

One of the designs that appears in the film is a water clock which finally allowed people to tell the time day or night. The props department must have had a fine time building this complex structure where balls travel through wooden pipes to finally strike a gong.

Arabic numerals weren’t used at the time and so, as ordinary citizens couldn’t read Chinese characters, wooden carvings of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac were used to represent the hours of the day. So you could say, ‘it’s rooster o’clock!’ I wrote more about that here:

How did they tell the time in the Joseon period?

More intensity is created by the fact that there are no female characters in this film at all. We never even meet a queen or a concubine. (There is a female servant who has a few lines, but that’s all.)

We have entered a man’s world. Well, two men really.

It’s a world of innovation. And after designing astronomical instruments and water clocks, Jang’s genius and passion for work seems endless. But I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it can’t last. He has too many enemies.

Beautifully made. Poignant. The intensity and chemistry of the leading actors kept me engaged until the dramatic and emotional end.

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Related posts:

The class system in the Joseon period 

Why do some Joseon kings have the title JO and other JONG? 

Study Korean Through Drama: Deep Rooted Tree ep09 역사를 거스르다 go against history

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