Somi - The Taekwon-do Woman

Somi - The Taekwon-do Woman


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Screening on opening night in 35mm as part of Zipangu Fest's “Reel Zipangu”, martial arts adventure Somi - The Taekwon-do Woman is a truly one of a kind item. Never before seen in the west, the film has in fact hardly been seen anywhere at all. Perhaps that is less surprising when one considers it lineage - the film is actually a Japanese/North Korean co -production. You heard that right: North, not South Korea.

The film's financing came from Japan, and it was intended for an international audience, to be released under the English title Woman Warrior Of Koryo. But the crew and cast were North Korean, including lead actress Ri Mi Yang, who was an amateur chosen by the North Koreans "because they thought that the Japanese might like her face" according to the producer. Ultimately, the film was only screened once in Japan, at the Yubari Film Festival in 2001, and it only screened once in North Korea on New Year's eve in 1997. Without any markets willing to take it, the English-language 35mm print was never used outside of its international festival debut at Yubari and remained in storage, until Zipangu Fest dug it up.

Copy picture

The tale is set in the medieval Kingdom of Koryo (918-1392), or early Korea, which is ruled over by a corrupt dynasty in the north that leaves the peasants to fend for themselves, protected only by liberal-minded robbers and samaritan local warriors. One such pair of just warriors are Somi’s parents, who eke out a living on a simple farm and fight alongside the workers when needed. But during a workers' uprising, the parents of young Somi are ruthlessly murdered by the brutal government warlord Hyon Ryu Bal. Somi gets away by boat, but loses her voice due to the shock. A kindly martial arts teacher (possessed of the classic combination of white robes, white shock of hair, and long beard), Dosa, takes her in. Along with another young boy from Somi's village, Ung Gom, orphaned in the same raid, Somi trains for years for the day when she might take revenge. Things get complicated however when a brash warrior turns up at Dosa's dojo and asks to join the training school. Apparently intrigued by Somi's beauty and innocence, he pursues her, to Ung Gom's fury. But is this new arrival simply a wandering Romeo, or are his motives more cloudy? Will Somi ever be able to regain her voice and develop her fighting skills to the point where she can battle her way past Ryu Bal's hordes of guards?

That Somi has been gathering dust in an archive for so long is a shame, as although the story is very much in line with the pulp B movie martial arts tales of tyranny and revenge, very common in Japanese drama and elsewhere, there is much to enjoy in this film. Those who want tongue in cheek laughs will of course get them, but it is surprising how high the production values seem given North Korean involvement.The colour palette is rich, with a plethora of brightly coloured and intricate sets, costume and hair designs on display (check Ryu Bal's coterie of concubines for one thing). The martial arts scenes are mostly CGI and wire-free, but there is something refreshingly solid and abrupt about them even if they aren't particularly extreme by what today's audiences have come to expect. The plot is also quite remorseless - literally everyone around Somi gets it in one gruesome way or another. Today, in 2012, it is easy to imagine midnight B movie clubs and pop-up repertory film cinemas, which seem to be everywhere in London these days, finding a place for Somi in their programmes.

Reviewed on: 19 Sep 2012
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Two young survivors of a medieval massacre are trained in martial arts and grow up bent on vengeance.

Director: Chang Yong Bok

Writer: Kim Sae Il

Starring: Ri Mi Yang

Year: 1997

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: Japan, North Korea


zipangu 2012

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