천군 (Heaven’s Soldiers) revisited: Hanmura Ryō’s Sengoku Jieitai (戦国自衛隊), 독재자 (Dictator), and more Korean SF News

This entry is part 45 of 72 in the series SF in South Korea

Long ago, I posted briefly about the monstrosity that is Heaven’s Soldiers (천군) a while back (and discussed it in an interview, too), but this is a point that is sure to interest those who, like me, have no access to Korean SF except through film and that small cache of English translations online linked in my sidebar (okay, here you go).

Note: a big image of the poster does not equal endorsement of the film…

As you may recall, Heaven’s Soldiers is a South Korean SF film about North and South Korean soldiers cooperating on the construction of nuclear weapons with which to apparently meet the threat of foreign hegemonic domination or invasion or something. (The plot was kind of muddled, but I remember that suddenly the passage of a comet sends the soldiers hurtling back though time into Korean history.)  I was asking some SF-fandom friends about it, and a few people (I think my friends Eunho and Insu) told me that the stuff about a North-South Korean alliance to build a nuclear weapon was a riff on a popular Korean novel from the 1980s, by an author whose name I promptly forgot.

After a little hunting around, though, I’m pretty sure it was Kim Chin-myong. This page on the US CIA website — yes, the CIA, that tells you something — has this to say, among other things:

The refashioned tale of nuclear proliferation, Mugunghwakkot i p’iotssumnida [The Rose of Sharon Has Blossomed], made him South Korea’s most successful novelist. The story of North and South Korea joining forces to defeat a Japanese invasion with a jointly-constructed atomic bomb became an immediate best seller and since its appearance has sold five million copies, a record for the Korean publishing industry. Since 1993, his books have invariably broken into national best-seller lists for fiction. Hanul iyo, Ttang iyo [Heaven and Earth], a novel published in 1998 that wove together the Korean financial hardship of the time with the author’s perception that his nation was in a spiritual crisis, sold more than a million copies.

Kim Chin-myong may also be the most popular South Korean novelist north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Sales figures there are nonexistent, but a Seoul journalist found Kim fans in North Korea. A guide accompanying the journalist around North Korea in July 2005 asked him if he had read Mugunghwakkot i p’iotssumnida. After the journalist said he had, his guide claimed to have read the book as well and asserted that a “considerable number” of people in the North had read it too. Saying how impressive he found the story of the Korean people on both sides of the DMZ uniting without foreign interference to defend their land against invasion, the guide opined that the “South” would do well to produce more novels like it.

Kim’s popularity in the North ought to be enough to give one pause, but of course, if any kind of fiction from the South were to make sense in a North Korean context, it would be xenophobic speculative fiction. (That is the genre in which most of the news media works up there too, after all.)

Great, great book. Get it. Read it.

Well, anyway, I was reviewing the page proofs for my paper on Korean SF film, and something bubbled up from my memories of the bios in the back of a book of Japanese SF I’d just finished reading the night before, called Speculative Japan (the wonderful collection of translations published by Kurodahan a few years ago, the second volume of which I’m now reading in order to review it).

I went and had a look, and found what I was looking for in the name of Hanmura Ryō. Here’s the relevant text from the bio at the end of Speculative Japan:

His ever-popular 1971 novel Sengoku Jieitai (Warring States SDF) dropped a small unit of Japan’s Self-Defense Force through a time hole into the middle of Japan’s Wartring States period, where they find that Oda Nobunaga, the great unifier of Japan, doesn’t yet exist, and take it upon themselves to unify the nation in his stead. The novel has twice been made into popular movies.

In the little bit of searching I’ve managed to do so far, I’ve seen rather less complimentary comments about the movies, especially by those who prefer the more recent manga adaptation titled Samurai Commando: Mission 1549 by Harutoshi Fukui and Ark Performance, I have to say, the resemblance to the plot of Heaven’s Soldiers is remarkable.

In that latter (Korean) film, it’s a secret group of North and South Korean soldiers who travel back in time to discover that Yi Sunshin, the naval commander famed today for repelling a Japanese invasions, is a drunkard and a dropout from the military examination system: that is to say, the time travelers in Heaven’s Soldiers go to the same century, and essentially the same period of time — only 50 years earlier, and at the moment when Japan was being unified — as the time traveling SDF soldiers in Hanmura Ryō’s Sengoku Jieitai, and they similarly have to fill in for and finally create a historical figure who is considered a national hero but doesn’t, for whatever reason, perform his heroic function (or, in a sense, doesn’t exist).

I have no idea what Hanmura Ryō’s text is like–it seems not to have been translated to English, from what I can tell–but I suspect I would hate the films made of it, at least one of which looks pretty ridiculous:

For a summary of this film, go look here. You know what they say about judging a book by its cover…

… but, well, I’m picky about SF films and Iit may be personal that I’ve found Japanese live-action SF films are often too cartoony and goofy for me, even more than Korean ones. (I’m open to suggestions, though. But don’t be surprised if I’m not impressed.) The above poster is for the remake, but check out this, er, “trailer” clip fest from the original, which I only know about because it was mentioned in the discussion of the film adaptations over at Mutant Frog Travelogue:

Seriously, some of those scenes really do remind me of Heaven’s Soldiers. Now, here’s where your average foreign commentator in Korea would rant about plagiarism and theft and unoriginality. That’s a load of toss, in this case at least: SF is all about borrowing, theft, reworking of ideas. In a way, I find the Korean film enriched by this possible hypertextuality: it may not be very self-consciously critiquing its own nationalism (which I still think ruins the film) but it is interesting how Korea’s own (modern) preoccupation with reunification is played out thematically in an apparent adaptation of a Japanese film literally about Japan’s unification by modern time-travelers. That’s at least as deep an engagement with the localization of SF as I’ve seen in any Korean SF film. Well, to whatever degree it’s conscious, mind. It’s hard to see, since the film itself is so hard to take seriously.

In any case, those interested in the handling of time travel in Korean SF films should also check out this paper on time-travel in Korean films, which discusses the familiar movies 2009: Lost Memories (2000) and Ditto (2000) but also a 1999 film I didn’t know existed, titled Calla (Kara).

In other news…

While steampunk (the literary genre) is something Korean SF fans know about, at least something about, I can report that references to steampunk are now appearing outside of that circle, too, at least in the fashion/consumer sense. Wonder what your average non-SF person makes of that sort of thing.

Oh, and for those following along, I was just informed by Jeong Soyeon (among other things, such as suggestions for stories for translation) that there was a new and “important” book of very political and social Korean SF published under the title 독재자 (Dictator) in December 2010. The contributors include a lot of the familiar names in Korean SF, and according to Jeong the book does indeed deal with themes of power and authoritarianism. Exciting stuff!

By the way, in other news, let’s see: there are currently a series of Philip K. Dick books being translated by Kim Sang-hoon (like this one) and published by 폴라북스. Kim’s translation of Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep is only half-finished at present, or at least, have published. (Volume 2 forthcoming at the moment.) I found a copy of Peter Watts’ Blindsight translated and published in Korea by Puzzlebooks with the most perplexing cover ever — as one friend commented, it looks like some kind of mainstream Japanese novel. One wonders how many non-SF readers will pick it up and find their minds ripped apart by the strangeness therein… well, if the translation preserves any of that.

I have word I’m not sure is public, so I won’t say anything beyond noting that Korea should be getting some novel-length Charles Stross work (in plural) in translation sometime soon, finally. And it’s the novels I figured would make the best transition to Korea, too! (I’ve heard there is a fan-translation of something of Stross’s around, but I can’t remember what.)

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2 thoughts on “천군 (Heaven’s Soldiers) revisited: Hanmura Ryō’s Sengoku Jieitai (戦国自衛隊), 독재자 (Dictator), and more Korean SF News

  1. GI SAMURAI (1979) is a fantastic film, one of the most powerful anti-war films i’ve ever seen (though i dislike that label).

    1. Well, now I am excited to hear that… I just got my hands on a copy and plan to watch it in the next few weeks… so I take it you haven’t seen Heaven’s Soldiers? Once I do see GI Samurai, I’ll definitely be reporting back with more a comparison of the two films… which I fear might mean I need to watch Heaven’s Soldiers again.

      Ah, my chagrin, there you are…

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