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One of the best things about going to film festivals is having the chance to catch things unlikely to be screened anywhere else. This was certainly the case with the opening gala of this year’s Zipangu Fest in London, which boasted only the third showing anywhere in the world of “Somi – The Taekwon-do Woman”. Directed by Chang Yong Bok and produced by Masao Kobayashi, the film has a fascinating history, being a 1997 Japan-North Korea co-production (100% financed on the Japanese side), whose only screenings to date have been at its premiere in North Korea on New Year’s Eve in 1997, and at the Yubari Film Festival in Japan 2001. With some international distribution initially being hoped for, a 35mm English language print was created (with the title “Woman Warrior of Koryo”), and though having languished in the vaults ever since has now been rescued, still in near perfect quality.
The film is a martial arts adventure, set back in the time of the Kingdom of Koryo (918-1392), ruled by a cruel dynasty in the North whose behaviour forces the honest citizens into rebellion. During a government crackdown, a young girl called Somi (amateur actress Ri Mi Yang, apparently chosen due to her having a face that would appeal to Japanese audiences) witnesses her parents being murdered by an evil official called Hyon Ryu Bal, and though she escapes with her life is struck mute by the shock. Along with fellow orphan Ung Gom, she is saved by a Taekwon-do master called Dosa, who keeps them hidden and trains them in martial arts until finally they are old enough to seek their revenge.
In many ways, “Somi – The Taekwon-do Woman” really isn’t what was might have been expected, chiefly since despite having been made in 1997, it’s an utterly old school and traditional looking martial arts film, so much so that viewers would be forgiven for mistaking it for a Shaw Brothers production from their 1970s heyday. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, and the film is a welcome throwback that also benefits from some surprisingly great production values, with sets, locations and costumes all above the usual Shaw standard. Although the plot follows the usual vengeance checklist to the letter, it’s a tale well told, with likeable characters and Chang Yong Bok throwing in enough nicely choreographed action scenes to keep things moving at a decent pace. Again, the production values really help here, and though not exactly lavish, the martial arts set pieces are generally of a high standard, with some amusing training sequences and rousing revenge in the final act.
Although its North Korean roots mean that “Somi” is inevitably most likely to appeal as a curiosity piece, it’s very much an accomplished piece of genre cinema in its own right and a film which should be enjoyed by any fans of good old fashioned martial arts. Hats off to Zipangu for unearthing such a gem, and hopefully, somehow, the film will go on to find a wider audience.
Chang Yong Bok (director) / Kim Sae Il (screenplay)
CAST: Ri Mi Yang … Somi