Somi, the Taekwon-do Woman (1997)

Somi, The Taekwon-do Woman is a film shot in North Korea in the late 1990s yet looks and feels like it was spawned many, many moons before. Not that this, necessarily, is a negative. 

   Chang Yong Bok's martial arts curio, financed with Japanese money and intended for an international release, is a historical revenge drama whose tale, and style, will be more than familiar to those with a passing knowledge of Asian martial arts cinema (the work of the Shaw Brothers instantly springs to mind). 

   Set in the Kingdom of Koryo (918-1392), the honest citizens of Korea are pushed over the edge by a cruel and tyrannical ruling dynasty; rebellion is in the air. Somi, a young girl, witnesses her parents' murder at the hands of the evil official Hyon Ryu Bal - although she escapes, the trauma renders her mute. 

   Salvation comes in the form of Taekwon-do master Dosa who takes in Somi, and fellow orphan Ung Gom, hiding and training them until they are equipped with the skills suitable for inflicting vengeance upon those who have wronged their souls. The process is long and hard and Somi struggles to prove to Dosa that he has not made a mistake taking her under his wing; will his tutelage be ultimately rewarded?

   Despite its status as a co-production, Somi fits into North Korean cinema canon with relative ease. As is the case with many DPRK movies, Chang's film focuses on historical injustices inflicted on the Korean people and shows its audience the only true manner in which they can seek salvation - through submissive, wholehearted dedication to a wise leader (in this instance, a Taekwon-do master).

   This trope, also apparent in examples such as Kim Kil-In and Pak Chong-song's charming Centre Forward, features a suffering protagonist pushing themselves to the edge of their physical capabilities and emerging mentally and physically stronger; the pain of labour and intense graft the only true path to victory. A recurring theme in many Juche-inspired DPRK movies, the notion of subservience and piety to leaders also finds its roots in the Confucian traditions of pre-modern Korea. Yet, Western audiences with no knowledge or interest in these ideologies and philosophies can still find much to enjoy in this handsomely shot and engaging martial arts movie.

   The stunning geography of North Korea, and the sumptuous retro cinematography, make 
Somi an absolute treat for the eye; something which is enhanced by the remarkable choreography on display too. It's not hard to imagine that the movie, had it been created in Hong Kong a decade earlier, could well have established itself as a B-movie mainstay - it's a stellar, and ultimately fun, piece of genre film-making. Yet, not unlike the equally impressive North Korean martial arts movies Hong Kil-Dong and Order No 27, the films' place of origin (and lack of widespread release) may have cost it a rightful place on the cult action movie circuit.
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A look at the films of North and South Korea. Written by Kieron J Casey.

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