If you were making a list of the least likely things imaginable, a North Korean-Japanese movie co-production might be fairly high on that list. As far as I can see, there have been at least two such projects and would likely have been many more had a kidnapping scandal not further soured relations between the two countries. The first of these films, Bird, was completed successfully but only shown once at the Tokyo Film Festival as there was little interest in the distribution of North Korean films. A similar fate befell the second of these films, the one with which we shall concern ourselves with here - Somi: The Taekwon-do Woman. Prior to its screening at the third Zipangu Fest the film has only been seen on New Year’s Eve 1997 in Pyongyang and at Japan’s Yubari Festival in 2001 - it has never received a full release in Asia nor been seen before in the west.
Taking politics aside this is perhaps surprising as Somi: The Taekwon-do Woman shares much in common with the popular female-led revenge films of the Seventies (though it perhaps steers away from those films’ exploitative elements). The film begins with Somi’s martial arts enthusiast parents going about their daily lives until her mother unfortunately spots an unwelcome face from the past in the marketplace. It’s not long before an old enemy comes to take his revenge and despite their best efforts Somi’s parents are cut down in front of her - only just managing to save their daughter by putting her on a boat and sending her out to sea. Luckily, she is soon found by an old man fishing nearby and rescued.
It turns out Somi’s parents weren’t the only victims of this mysterious man’s wrath as, on their way back, Somi and the old man come across a boy and a mortally wounded man. In another stroke of luck the old man happens to be the master of a martial arts school who agrees to take in and train the two children so that they can gain vengeance for their parents. Somi and the boy, Ung Gom, train steadily together while preparing for their mission and eventually fall in love. Things change however when a new recruit joins the school and offers Somi a new possibility of taking her vengeance. Mute since her parents’ death and mocked by the other men at the training school, Somi begins to fear she will never fulfil her mother’s dying wish and so begins to contemplate the outsider’s offer. However, he may not be all he seems and Somi could be about to find herself in a new and even more dangerous situation.
The first thing that struck me about Somi: The Taekwon-do Woman was just how ‘seventies’ it looked. Having not seen any other North Korean films I couldn’t tell you if that was a conscious decision on the part of the director or reflective of the way North Korean cinema in general looks, but if I hadn’t already known the history of this film I would have assumed it to be much older than it is. All the hallmarks of the revenge films from that period are there: the murdered parents, the murdered surrogate parents, the thwarted love story, the heroine that only gradually learns how to stand up and take her own revenge. The only missing aspects are in the lack of salacious detail and (explicit) sexual threat.
Despite the fact that the lead actress, as well as being non-professional when it comes to acting, was not proficient in Taekwon-do all the fight scenes are extremely well done and exciting. Whether it’s fast kicking Taekwon-do take downs or flying hairpins the action is always enormously satisfying. Yes, there are the usual fight noises but they are very well done and in keeping with the film; they never feel gratuitous. Similarly, the dialogue is non-sync sound but the fact that it was recorded separately and dubbed onto the film afterwards is never a problem - everything lines up pretty well and none of the performances feel particularly stilted because of it. It’s true then that budget was low and access to technology poor but in spite of that Somi: The Taekwon-do Woman still feels like a technically proficient film as it accomplishes everything it sets out to do so well.
What to say then? I can’t tell you anything else about North Korean Cinema seeing as Somi: The Taekwon-do Woman is the only film I’ve seen and perhaps the only one I’m likely to see (the odd rare appearance of Pulgasari not withstanding) but as an old fashioned revenge themed martial arts film Somi certainly ticks all the boxes. it’s got great action, an engaging if simplistic plot and a wronged heroine out for vengeance against the decadent lord who’s out to take everything from her. If you ever get an opportunity to see this film, I would urge you to do so if only for curiosity’s sake, but once you have seen it it’s difficult not to charmed by its simple proficiency.
Somi: The Taekwon-do Woman screened as the centrepiece of the opening night of the third Zipangu Fest at the Cinema Museum in South London.