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North Korean/Japanese co-production: Somi, The Taekwondo Woman screens at the Zipangu Festival

A European premiere in the Elephant and Castle on Friday 14 September: a Japanese / North Korean historical martial arts co-production from 1997. It will be screened at the Zipangu Japanese Film Festival, but only provided it gets enough funding in advance. You can ensure the film gets screened by being one of the 120 people needed to chip in £10 to fund the screening.

Contribute via the Crowdfunder website here.

Somi – The Taekwondo Woman (1997)

International Premiere, 105min
Date: Friday 14 September 2012 at 8:00pm
Venue: The Cinema Museum, 2 Dugard Way (off Renfrew Road), London SE11 4TH (020 7840 2200)

Still from Somi the Taekwondo Woman

Dir: Chang Yong Bok
Producer: Masao Kobayashi
Cinematographer: Wi Yun Song
Scriptwriter: Kim Sae Il
Music: Han Si Jun

All is not well in the medieval Kingdom of Koryo (918-1392), a distant precursor of today’s Korea, ruled over by a corrupt dynasty in the north. While the Koryo overlords become bloated on a lifestyle of luxury and decadence, a series of farmer’s revolts rock the country, only to be mercilessly quashed. During one such uprising, the parents of a young girl, Somi, are ruthlessly murdered by the brutal government vassal Hyon Ryu Bal. The shock causes Somi to lose her voice, as she flees by boat for her life. She is rescued and taken in by Dosa, a white-haired martial arts master, along with another young boy from Somi’s village, Ung Gom, orphaned in the same raid. As Dosa raises the two in his martial arts school, Somi and Ung Gom grow up together like brother and sister, waiting until their day of vengeance arrives.

On the surface, Somi – The Taekwondo Woman may not look like a Japanese film, and one doesn’t think often think of Japan in relation to international co-productions, especially during the 1990s. However, the film was financed 100% on the Japanese side and was intended for an international audience, to be released under the alternative English title of Woman Warrior of Koryo. The story follows a similar narrative arc to that celebrated Japanese tale of tyranny and revenge, Lady Snowblood, but benefits from the sets, locations and solid craftsmanship provided by its North Korean cast and crew, resulting in a far higher production values than one would expect of a historical martial arts action movie made in Japan during the same period.

Still from Somi the Taekwondo Woman

According to the film’s producer, Masao Kobayashi, the actress playing Somi, Ri Mi Yang, was an amateur who was chosen by the North Koreans “because they thought that the Japanese might like her face”. As fortune would have it, however, the film was only screened once in Japan, at the Yubari Film Festival in 2001. It didn’t fare much better in North Korea either, screening only once on its premiere on New Year’s eve 1997/98. Meanwhile global political developments saw potential markets for the film closing, and though an English-language 35mm print was prepared, it was never used outside of its international festival debut at Yubari and remained in storage, until now…

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