[신기전] The Divine Weapon 

Flick shows Joseon military technology

By Yang Sung-jin

Published on The Korea Herald: August 20, 2008

"The Divine Weapon (Singijeon)," directed by Kim Yu-jin, sports a host of appealing dramatic elements: a multi-launch rocket system from the early Joseon period, a touchy diplomatic showdown with the Ming Dynasty and adrenaline-pumping ground battles.

The introduction of the long-forgotten Joseon weapon "singijeon" (ghost-like machine arrow) is refreshing, particularly given that many people have stereotypes regarding the Joseon period. In contrast to public perception, reform-minded kings in the early Joseon period put great emphasis on military buildup and the development of new weapons, even at the cost of irking Ming China - which is also duly reflected in the movie.

In portraying the relations between Joseon and Ming China, the movie shows ordinary people suffering greatly to appease the mighty regional power. In the movie, the Ming China delegation forces Joseon to donate resources, including 800 eunuchs.

One Joseon official protests strongly that Ming`s demand is too much. Due to the undeveloped medical technology of the time, about half of those who go through the cruel procedures die. Ming China`s demand remains firm and the camera shifts to a gory scene where innocent kids, bound to chairs, undergo gruesome castration - an emotionally-charged scene bound to evoke nationalistic sentiment among audiences.

The movie`s other focus is realistic action sequences - one-on-one swordplay, infiltration schemes and massive battles where thousands of soldiers fight for their survival.

Upstaging all of these is a love story between a merchant and a female scientist, an unlikely match that softens the hard edges.

Seol-ju (Jung Jae-young), boss of a Korean merchant group, prepares a lot for the forthcoming Ming delegation. It is customary that a Chinese diplomatic delegation comes with merchants, providing an importance chance to trade in large volumes.

What Seol-ju fails to expect is that the Ming delegation has a different mission this time. China is keen to block Joseon from developing advanced weapons, so it has sent a group of spies -- without any accompanying merchants.

Faced with a crisis, a high-ranking court official offers a deal to Seol-ju. Under the proposal, he should protect a person whose identity should be kept secret. It turns out that the person is a key military engineer`s daughter, Hong-ri (Han Eun-jeong), who knows all the secrets about a new lethal weapon the Joseon court wants to develop.

Seol-ju is drawn to Hong-ri as their secret project gets off to a good start under the auspices of the Joseon court. Some of the key scenes involve his affection toward her, setting the overall tone for the film as a romantic feature, despite the historical trappings.

However, it is a bit puzzling that King Sejong (Ahn Sung-ki), the mastermind of the program, is sidelined. The great king`s role is so marginalized in the film that the audience might wonder why veteran actor Ahn took the role. King Sejong`s top military aide, played by Hur Jun-ho, gets a far more meaningful role, mediating between the king and the engineers.

The movie`s highlight is a major battle scene near the end, where the divine weapons are deployed and their ghost-like firepower displayed. But do not expect a perfectly realistic portrayal. As Kim uses too many computer-generated visual effects, the final scene lacks the authenticity it badly needs.


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