Review of the drama “Forbidden Marriage”

ANDWhen it comes to web novel adaptations, a certain level of creative freedom is expected. While Forbidden marriage (mostly) preserves the core of the story on which it is based – a popular web novel Joseon’s marriage ban – and helmed by original author Chun Ji-hye, fails to convey the nuances that made the characters from the source material so endearing.

Before we get to that, let’s look at the problem in Joseon. After the untimely death of the crown princess, the royal family is on the hunt for a suitable replacement – hence the marriage ban to keep all eligible women unmarried so the king doesn’t show interest. But seven years have passed and there is still no new queen. The birth rate has fallen and rumors about the king’s virility and sexuality abound, but the business of illegal marriages and compatibility predictions is booming.

One of the ringleaders of this underground network is So-rang (Park Ju-hyun), who runs a marriage prediction business working as a tea shop. So-rang’s penchant for hyperbole often gets her into trouble, but she’s smart and good at getting around the authorities. When her luck inevitably runs out and she’s thrown into prison, a desperate So-rang pretends to be a psychic with the power to communicate with spirits.

Kim Young Dae's Forbidden Marriage
Kim Young-dae in ‘Forbidden Marriage’. Credit: Prime Video

This lie lands her right in front of King Lee Heon (Kim Young-dae), who has been a shell of himself since his fiancée died in an apparent suicide. During the day, he rejects all attempts to remarry him and tries to unravel the conspiracy surrounding the Princess’s death. He is haunted by hallucinations at night. In an attempt to secure her freedom, So-rang pretends to guide the crown princess, but when the king falls for her deception, she realizes that she may have bitten off more than she can chew.

While the series faithfully accommodates the characters’ idiosyncrasies, it misses the mark in understanding their subconscious. Despite her penchant for banter, So-rang is surprisingly compassionate. In the web novel, she quickly realizes the delicacy of the king’s mental state and feels genuinely concerned for Lee Heon, not to mention guilty for having to exploit his weaknesses, even if it is for his own good. The adaptation, however, omits these subtleties and makes So-rang seem relentlessly exploitative.

The adaptation also lacked the devastated and depressed King Lee Heon, who endeared himself to webnovel readers with his surprising naivety. Despite the fact that he set a great precedent with his performance in We are all deadKim Young-dae fails to convey the subtleties of Lee Heon’s psyche, instead leaning towards exaggerated displays of emotion that do little to foster sympathy for the tormented young king.

There are, however, some boxes that the show definitely checks, namely the writing and comic book timing. Despite the historical setting, the drama does not shy away from clever camera work, fast editing and interesting breaks in the fourth wall that give it a distinctly light and modern feel. The opening sequence, for example, is a wonderfully dynamic introduction to So-rang’s character, where she directly addresses the audience between quick costume changes and funny quips. This immediately gives a refreshing tone to the show.

However, the biggest saving grace in the series is Park Ju-hyun. Her youthful looks and charm make her a good match for the bubbly, mischievous So-rang, but to chalk it all up to a good casting decision would be a disservice to her on-screen charisma. Park is simply the most magnetic cast, free and spirited, purposeful, but not afraid to have fun at its own expense. Her So-rang is anything but one-dimensional, as we see in the brief moments where she channels her longing for the life she once knew.

Kim Woo Seok's Forbidden Marriage
Kim Woo-seok in ‘Forbidden Marriage’. Credit: Prime Video

And Park immediately elevates the other characters around him, even the ones you might not be sure about. Her exchange with Lee Shin-won (Kim Woo-seok) adds an interesting dimension to the otherwise wise, stoic officer, while she seems to bring out a nuanced performance from Kim Young-dae, who tempers his loud exposition with muted reactions.

Four episodes in, Forbidden marriage can understandably wait to flesh out the deeper aspects of So-rang’s character, but until then, we’re sure many will come for the laughs and stay for Park’s electric screen presence.

Forbidden marriage airs every Saturday and Sunday on MBC TV and broadcast on Prime Video in selected territories.

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