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Movie sheds light on old military technology

2008/08/06 | 626 views | Permalink | Source

"The Divine Weapon" (Singijeon), a Korean film directed by Kim Yoo-jin, is unusual in at least two respects.

First, it is a massive project that cost 10 billion won ($9.8 million) and took almost 6 years to produce. Second, it is about a sophisticated military weapon that is not well known among Koreans, much less foreigners.

The movie, to be released on Sept. 4, is about the development of the world's first multi-launch rocket system. It was called "singijeon", which means "ghost-like machine arrow" in Korean. Once out of the launcher, the fire-arrows were set to detonate automatically near the target area.

Manufactured from the early 15th to mid-16th century, the singijeon was often used in the northern frontiers, and played a pivotal role in fending off invasions. The high-powered firearm was used in the southern provinces to keep the Japanese sea-borne marauders at bay.

"When it comes to the singijeon, we have tried to reflect historical facts as much as possible, but other elements such as the plot and characters are mostly fictional", director Kim told reporters at a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday.

The movie features King Sejong, the Joseon monarch who sponsored the invention of the Korean alphabet and the development of various technologies, as well as implementing progressive policies. Played by veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki, Sejong is depicted as a complex figure who has to deal with many difficult issues, especially the tricky diplomatic relations with Ming China.

Set in 1448, the film begins with a tension-packed situation in which the Ming regime wants to nix Joseon's plan to develop a powerful military weapon. A key engineer's daughter, Hong-ri (Han Da-gam), disappears with a document that contains the secret design for the weapon, and the Joseon court has to confront a hostile Ming delegation.

But the real protagonist of the film is neither King Sejong nor Hong-ri. It is an obscure merchant named Seol-ju (Jung Jae-young), who gets swept into the whirlwind of treacherous political schemes -- and makes a happenstance contribution to the development of the singijeon.

"My character is the head of a Joseon merchant group, but he's not a political figure. He's a guy who loves drinking and chasing after girls. But he happens to help make the singijeon after he falls in love with Hong-ri", Jung Jae-young explained.

Han Da-gam said that her character is a scientist who acts on her father's wish to complete the new weapons program. "In the process of pushing for the secret project, Hong-ri develops a relationship with Seol-ju, and there are some scenes revealing her human side", Han said.

Ahn Sung-ki, who played Korea's fictional president in the film called "Hanbando", along with other powerful figures on the big screen, said that King Sejong is portrayed in an interesting way. "I really liked this character because King Sejong, in the movie, uses a cuss word when he's really upset, and I think I can understand his feeling. Even kings may swear if they are pushed into a corner", Ahn said.

King Sejong's key aide is Chang-gan, a royal guard played by Heo Joon-ho. "When I was reading the script, I realized my ignorance about the great weapon we had developed. At the same time, I felt proud of the historical achievement", Hur said. "I believe more people should feel the same pride about the singijeon".

In contrast to the widespread assumption that Joseon Dynasty officials indulged in bureaucratic squabbles at the cost of military preparedness, the first half of the 500-year era was a time in which a military build-up was the chief concern among top policymakers.

King Sejong, in particular, was deeply interested in developing gunpowder firearms, including rocket-based weapons. According to the Joseon Dynasty Annals, he ordered that 5,500 rocket launchers called "juhwa" -- which were the base for the singjieon -- to be positioned at the northern frontiers to enhance the country's military strength.

Historical documents show that the singijeon was capable of firing as many as 100 fire arrows or explosive grenades. Its long-range firepower tended to catch the enemy off-guard. The fire arrow contained a device equipped with gunpowder and shrapnel.

Director Kim said the production team restored the original singijeon with the help of experts, but noticed that it was difficult to control the rocket-launcher system. "It was very challenging to run the restored rocket system, and my impression is that our forefathers had better technology in dealing with the timed detonation for the singijeon", Kim said.

By Yang Sung-jin

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