It’s inevitable that the South Korean movie machine would eventually get around to contributing to the shaping-history time travel movie genre, this time in the form of rookie writer/director Min Joon-ki’s “Heaven’s Soldiers.” As films in the genre usually goes, contemporary characters wind up somewhere in the past, where they happen upon a critical juncture in history alongside one or two significant figures of the time. The protagonists soon discover that the truth doesn’t quite jibe with history, and are forced to lend a hand in fulfilling that history. It’s a tried-and-true formula, and the best example might be “Star Trek: First Contact” (aka the third best “Star Trek” movie, ever).
The subject of revision in “Heaven’s Soldiers” is Lee Soon-shin, a name that holds little meaning outside the Korean peninsula, but is arguably the most well-known (if not most respected) figure in Korean history. Lee was a savvy tactician who beat back the Japanese invaders at the end of the 16th century, employing a perfect combination of skill and luck. Presently, an obscenely large statue of the man stands in Seoul , and his likeness appears on numerous denominations of South Korean currency.
But “Heaven’s Soldiers” gets fanciful on us even before the time hopping starts. According to the movie, by 2005 the North and South Korean governments have secretly joined forces to create a nuclear warhead, and when the leaders of both nations decide to hand over the nuke to the American military, North Korean officer Kang Min-gil (Kim Seung-woo) goes rogue and hides away with the nuke along with nuclear physicist Kim Su-yeon (Kong Hyu-jin, “Volcano High”). It’s up to South Korean Navy Officer Park Jeong-wu (Hwang Jung-min, “A Bittersweet Life”) and a team of commandos to retrieve the scientist and the warhead, but during a heated firefight, the nuke, the scientist, and both groups of soldiers are swept up in the wake of a passing comet (don’t ask) and dumped into the late 1500s — right in the middle of a battle between Korean peasants and marauding Chinese barbarians.
Not surprisingly, the soldiers handily dispatch the barbarians with their modern weaponry, and are thus dubbed “Heaven’s Soldiers” by the startled onlookers. It’s not long before the unwitting time travelers run afoul of a brazen thief who turns out to be no other than the legendary Lee Soon-shin (Park Joong-hoon), looking very un-legendary at the moment. To their horror, the travelers discover that the real Lee is a selfish, thieving layabout more concern with the money in his purse than the future of his country. It’s up to hero worshipper Park to mentor his personal hero onto the greater things written about him in history. Meanwhile, Kang and his men task themselves with retrieving the warhead, as scientist Kim tries to figure out how they’re all going to get back home.
Being that “Heaven’s Soldiers” is very much a Korean film, it is of course schizophrenic in tone, swinging across great distances of broad comedy and intense melodrama and back again. This results in the filmmakers milking their admittedly derivative concept for the full spectrum of emotions. It’s a good thing, too, since the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach of “Heaven’s Soldiers” is what makes it a unique and mostly entertaining movie in the first place.
Even before the time-travel element is introduced, “Heaven’s Soldiers” walks in the realm of the fantastic with its suggestion that both Koreas would cooperate to develop a nuclear weapon in secret. Keep in mind that just five years ago “JSA” stirred up a ridiculous amount of controversy when it offered a story featuring fraternization between enemy soldiers along the DMZ. Taking that into consideration, time travel via near-earth comet fly-by would seems almost mundane, at least from a South Korean perspective.
“Heaven’s Soldiers” indulges in the expected fish-out-of-water gags when the soldiers first arrive in the past, but there are also humorous asides about life in the 16th century. But more unique to the setting is director Min’s sly dig at the current state of affairs on the Korean peninsula. In particular, the fact that the North and South soldiers insist on maintaining their separate nationalistic ways, leading to pointed scenes where the characters create and enforce a miniature DMZ-esque barrier in front of the dilapidated forest hovel that serves as their base of operations. In fact, it’s the film’s numerous subtle jabs at modern life and politics that sets “Heaven’s Soldiers” apart from other films with a similar premise.
Expectedly, “Heaven’s Soldiers” takes a decidedly dark turn at roughly the halfway mark, embarking on a detour to Melodramaramaland with gusto. The plotline about the Chinese barbarians which had been sitting at the peripheral edges finally comes to the fore when the invaders embark on a blood vendetta against our displaced heroes. The result is a fairly jarring segue into a period war film as Lee finds his strengths as an emerging leader and our time-displaced soldiers set aside their differences for the Cause (and that’s definitely deserving of a capital “C”) while all traces of comedy evaporates from the story.
Despite its flaws, “Heaven’s Soldiers” holds up well as a whole. As in the case of the recent “A Bittersweet Life,” “Heaven’s Soldiers” writer/director Min Joon-ki is well aware he’s not reinventing the wheel, and as a result plays with audience expectations at every opportunity. It’s probably no accident that the time travelers land in the time of the revered Lee Sun-shin, considering the political shakeups the Korean Peninsula has undergone since the end of World War II. If anything, “Heaven’s Solders” serves as a calling card to a simpler time, before demilitarized zones and foreign influences split the country. Ultimately, this is where “Heaven’s Soldiers” shines — it starts off as a routine time-travel story, only to finish up as a nationalistic male-empowerment/brotherhood movie.
Joon-ki Min (director) / Joon-ki Min (screenplay)
CAST: Jeong-min Hwang …. Park Jung-woo
Seung-woo Kim …. Kang Min-gil
Hyo-jin Kong …. Kim Su-yeon
Joong-Hoon Park …. Admiral Yi Sun-shin