As far as screen adaptations of web-novels go, a certain level of creative liberty is expected. While The Forbidden Marriage (mostly) preserves the crux of the story it’s based on – the popular web-novel Joseon’s Marriage Ban – and is spearheaded by original author Chun Ji-hye, it falls short in conveying the nuances that made the characters of the source material so likeable.
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Before we come to that, though, let’s look at the problem in Joseon. Following the untimely death of the Crown Princess, the royal family is on the hunt for a suitable replacement – hence, a marriage ban to keep all eligible women unmarried lest the king show interest. But seven years have passed, and there’s still no new queen. Birth rates have fallen and rumours 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 moonlighting as a tea house. So-rang’s penchant for hyperbole often lands her in trouble, but she’s clever and good at giving the authorities the slip. When her luck inevitably runs out and she’s thrown in prison, a desperate So-rang pretends to be a psychic with the power to communicate with spirits.
This lie lands her directly in front of King Lee Heon (Kim Young-dae), who’s been a husk of himself since his betrothed died by apparent suicide. By day, he rebuffs all efforts to remarry him and tries to untangle the conspiracy around the Crown Princess’s death. By night, he is haunted by hallucinations. In a bid to secure her freedom, So-rang pretends to channel the Crown Princess, but when the king falls for her ruse, she realises she may have bitten off more than she can chew.
While the show faithfully adapts the idiosyncrasies of the characters, it woefully misses the mark in understanding their subconscious. Despite her penchant for fibbing, So-rang is surprisingly empathetic. In the web-novel, she’s quick to grasp the delicacy of the king’s mental state and feels genuinely worried for Lee Heon, not to mention guilty at having to use his weaknesses, even if it is for his own good. The adaptation, however, omits these subtleties and makes So-rang look unapologetically exploitative.
The adaptation also fails the devastated and depressed King Lee Heon, who endeared himself to the web-novel’s readers with his surprising naivete. Despite setting a great precedent with his performance in All Of Us Are Dead, Kim Young-dae fails to deliver the subtleties of Lee Heon’s psyche, instead leaning into exaggerated displays of emotion that do little to inspire empathy for the tortured young king.
There are, however, some boxes that the show definitely checks, namely the writing and comic timing. Despite the historical setting, the drama doesn’t shy away from clever camera work, pacy editing, and engaging fourth-wall breaks which give a decidedly light-hearted and modern feel. The opening sequence, for instance, is a delightfully dynamic introduction of So-rang’s character, where she addresses the audience directly between quick costume changes and hilarious quips. It immediately sets a refreshing tone for the show.
And the show’s biggest saving grace, however, is Park Ju-hyun. Her youthful looks and charm make her a good fit for the bubbly, mischievous So-rang, but chalking it all up to a good casting decision be a disservice to her on-screen charisma. Park is easily the most magnetic of the cast, free and buoyant, purposeful yet unafraid to have fun at her own expense. Her So-rang is anything but one-dimensional, though, as we see in the brief moments where she channels a wistfulness for the life she previously knew.
And Park immediately elevates other characters around her, even those whom you might feel unsure about. Her exchanges with Lee Shin-won (Kim Woo-seok) add an interesting dimension to the otherwise sagely, stoic officer, while she seems to bring out a more nuanced performance from Kim Young-dae, who tones down his loud displays for subdued reactions.
Four episodes in, The Forbidden Marriage might understandably be waiting to flesh out the more profound facets of So-rang’s character, but until then, we’re sure that many will come for the laughs and stay for Park’s electric presence on screen.
The Forbidden Marriage airs every Saturday and Sunday on MBC TV and streams on Prime Video in select territories.