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 Taekwon-do 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.
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...
(Producer's profile) Masao Kobayashi (1936- ) began his career in film working as an assistant director for Daiei in the 1960s, until the company’s bankruptcy in 1971. He then moved to the film/TV section of Tokuma Publishing in 1974, where he produced chiefly TV suspense dramas until the early 1990s. He then oversaw Tokuma's Cinema Beam project, in which 6 films by young directors from all over the world were selected for production by the company, chosen from roughly 2000 applicants. One of the Cinema Beam projects was Public Access (1993), the first film by a certain Bryan Singer. Another was a co-production with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea entitled Bird (1992), directed by Rim Chang Bom, for which Kobayashi appointed the zainichi (Japanese-born Korean) producer Lee Bong-Ou. Shortly after these Cinema Beam projects, Kobayashi left Tokuma and was requested by the DPKR’s Film Export & Import Corporation to make another film, resulting in the production of Somi - The Taekwon-do Woman, financed with Japanese money but using an all North Korean cast and crew. In 2000, he travelled to Pyongyang with the celebrated Japanese director Yōji Yamada (the It's Tough Being a Man/Tora-san series, Twilight Samurai, About Her Brother etc) with a view to another such co-production, but trade restrictions imposed in 2004 by the then Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi, following Kim Jong-il's disclosure of the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korea, spelled an end to such projects.