[DVD review] Dug up from past, ‘Robot’ still shines

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[DVD review] Dug up from past, ‘Robot’ still shines


Watching Kim Cheong-gi’s “Robot Taekwon V” is an interesting study in anthropology. The racial mix of characters, added to the vague setting and time period of the story, should surprise viewers when they realize that this is the first Korean animated feature film, released three decades ago in a land that was then undoubtedly homogeneous.
The film, which was recently released in a limited-edition DVD set, has a similar vibe to an awkward contemporary sci-fi co-production between Hollywood and Korea, filmed in analogue.
But the film was released in 1976, when the nation was still in the hands of a dictator and the entire population went frantic over news that a Korean wrestler had won a gold medal at the Montreal Olympics, the first for Korea since the country was liberated from Japan in 1945.
Robot Taekwon V clearly conveys the morals and ideals of modern Korea as it struggles to moderate between modern development and the traditional values of the past. To put it simply, the story revolves around the age-old battle between good and evil.
Dr. Kaff, an evil scientist, is out to conquer the world with an army of robots made from failing athletes he has kidnapped. His plot, however, fails as the good Dr. Kim creates Robot Taekwon V to save the people from danger, the robot battles his enemies with his kicking, punching and blocking taekwondo action.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film, however, is its depiction of science and Western culture, which serve as subjects of simultaneous fascination and fear. The fact that the two scientists in the film, Dr. Kim and Dr. Kaff, or good versus evil, are respectively given Korean and Western names seems like more than a coincidence.
There also seems an innocent hope in common traditional knowledge, like the happy magpies and sparrows that seem to have jumped right out of Korean fairy tales. In between scenes of machines and buttons that dominate and destroy the urban forest of the film, the frequent appearances of a “tin-can robot,” a harmless baby robot wearing a kettle mask, offers an uncertain pleasure that seems authentically Korean as it sprinkles red chili powder on its enemies as a means of defense.
There are, however, rawer descriptions that convey nationalistic ambitions, like the comic soliloquy of Dr. Kaff near the end, when he says, “I now realize that my dream of dominating the world using machines was vanity. I bow in front of Korea’s Taekwondo.”
The film is also laced with fascination with modern Western cultural ideals. Dr. Kim’s dinner in his lab is laid out on a tall, classic dining table with a menu that includes fried chicken and steamed potatoes. Chevrolets and Volkswagens race through countryside villages while Dr. Kim’s daughter ― blonde, big eyed and clad in tight jeans ― fondly watches her black-haired, average-sized Korean boyfriend practicing taekwondo on a mountainside.
The scenes evidently reveal confusion and excitement about the future, science and the West. It’s no surprise that Robot Taekwon V was released in the United States, under the title “Voltar the Invincible.” Until 2003, when the film’s negative was found in the Korean Film Council’s storage, no remaining copy of the film was known to have been left in the country after the original and its copyright were sold to the United States in 1978.
In 2005 Robot Taekwon V became the first Korean film to undergo full digital restoration, complete with the original sound, but it is still missing an ending credit and bits of the film’s opening.

Title: Robot Taekwon V
Director: Kim Cheong-gi
Running Time: 80 minutes
Subtitles: English
Genre: Animation

By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [myfeast@joongang.co.kr]
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