Robot Taekwon V Review
In July of 1976 well regarded Korean producer Yu Hyun-Mok released the first ever Korean animated science fiction feature film, Robot Taekwon V. With the Japanese occupation of Korea still fresh in many people's minds the film was a curious beast, on one level a glaringly obvious knock off of Japan's Mazinger Z while on another level it actually represents a sort of fierce Korean nationalism. With the Japanese characters in the film portrayed as buck toothed buffoons and the Japanese inspired robot battling villains with tae kwon do moves while wearing a replica of the helmet Admiral Yi Sunsin wore in the actual historcial battles against Japanese annexation you can actually argue that Robot Taekwon V is a subtle piece of reverse annexation, the Korean producers repaying years of Japanese appropriation of their culture by themselves lifting a piece of Japanese culture and rendering it something uniquely Korean. But beyond any sort of subtext the film was simply a rollicking piece of science fiction adventure that proved enormously popular, spawning numerous sequels.
But something strange happened. Popular or not the film was simply lost. For decades it was believed that there was only one surviving print and that print was incomplete and in very poor condition, meaning that this landmark of Korean film history was totally lost to the Korean public, a cruel piece of irony for such a piece of populist nationalism. Luckily in 2003 a duplicate print was discovered stashed away in a warehouse and a two year long restoration project began, one that led to the film bowing at the 2005 Pusan International Film Festival, a subsequent theatrical release that set new records for Korean animation and, now, a DVD release.
But enough of the history lesson. What's the film about?
Kim Hoon is a world champion tae kwon do fighter, trained up since childhood by his father -- the famous robot scientist Dr. Kim. Dr. Kim has been working for years on his masterpiece, the giant sized robotic warrior Taekwon V, a super sized machine Dr. Kim envisions as a sort of global hero, big and powerful enough to bring about world peace if employed for good. But others have other plans, among them the evil Dr. Kaff -- a diminutive former associate of Dr. Kim -- who, in a glaring case of over compensation, plans to use robotic technology to take over the world. Dr. Kaff kidnaps a string of world class athletes to pilot his robot army and when Kaff's minions kill Dr. Kim it falls to Hoon to take the controls of Robot Taekwon V and restore peace to the world.
Robot Taekwon V is every inch a product of the seventies. With its bright colors, simplistic character designs and plot line that casts its characters in the broadest possible terms of good and evil the film charts a course and employs an animation style that is surprisingly reminiscent of a Hanna Barbera production of the same era, right down to the cycled and repeated background paintings. Don't even begin to think critically about the plot or its enormous plot holes will leap out -- "I can't believe she was an android! But maybe that time she got angry and tried to stab a squirrel with her sword should have tipped me off! I know! Let's put her back together and keep her here even though she just tried to break into the secret lab so she can finish the job and kill my father in the process! Yay!" -- and the contrast between the cutesiness of the heroes and borderline racism of the villain designs is astounding, but there's a charm, energy and innocence to this that you just don't see any more. Complex, no. Classic, yes, and in more ways than one.
The DVD release is excellent, the film coming through the restoration process looking as buff and shiny as the freshly washed and waxed robot. The print is pristine, the only noticable issue some differences in color grading that could possibly be an issue with the original cell shading as easily as it could be an issue with the DVD itself. You get the original mono audio mix plus fresh 5.1 and DTS remixed version and well translated English subtitles. Well translated though they may be, the subtitles are occasionally poorly formatted, however, with long sentences running off either side of the screen. The second disc comes loaded with bonus features, none of shich -- sadly -- feature any English language options.