Heaven’s Soldiers (천군, Min Joon-ki: 2005)

North Korea decides to hand over a nuclear warhead  (developed secretly with the South) to American forces as a result of International pressure. Major Kang – a North Korean Officer-  is unhappy with the arrangement and steals the warhead to prevent the handover. Kang believes that North Korea should not be dictated to by the rest of the world. South Korean special forces pursue Kang to retrieve the warhead, but a gunfight between the two sides is disrupted when a comet passes close to the earth’s atmosphere. The soldiers awaken from unconsciousness and are totally disoriented, soon discovering that they seem to have travelled back in time from the year 2005 to1572…

Aaah, so there’s a new angle for the, now familiar, story of Northern and Southern Korean soldiers ‘forced to work together and find common ground’ as we take on a time-travel twist. In Heaven’s Soldiers the North and South are thrown into a pre-civil war time period against a common enemy (Japanese invaders) and given a hero that both sides can duly celebrate – a man called Lee Soon-shin. Lee is a well-known General in Korean history (within Korea this is, outside of Korea the name is probably not widely known) as a figurehead who was instrumental in defeating a Japanese invasion twenty years later than the time period in which the film is set. The history books portray Lee as a strict military man with incredible tactical and weaponry skills. Heaven’s Soldiers plays with this reputation, giving us a man who is a petty thief with little interest in the military (having failed the military exam) and with few other skills. While much of these jokes may be lost on an audience unfamiliar with the historical figure, the spirit of fun-poking is certainly recognisable and one of Heaven’s Soldiers strengths is in the portrayal of the highly revered man played against the soldiers own expectations.

Of course, the soldiers soon decide that they should intervene in history themselves and try to help Lee reach his potential, but Lee is largely used as a figurehead for the narrative rather than the drive. It’s probably this lack of leadership from the character that lets the script down as it’s pacing is too loosely paced. After a slick opening, the middle section of the film flags as it flits with some North / South drama (watch in surprise as the usual distrust slowly turns to quiet respect) and some broad humour (which works better than the drama) before tightening up again for the last half an hour of the film. Heaven’s Soldiers is one part Welcome to Dongmakgol and one part G.I. Samurai (the Sonny Chiba flick) without managing to find the pace or the heart of either. Where Welcome to Dongmakgol manages to show how its soldiers grow together, Heaven’s Soldiers has characters that are too undefined and underdeveloped for us to follow this same progression. In fact, when the soldiers inevitably unite towards the end of the film (it’s not a spoiler, you know this will happen from the opening credits!), narratively it’s quite a shock as they’ve shown little interest in each other and certainly little respect up until this point.

Director and writer Min Joon-ki certainly sets up an interesting premise with Heaven’s Soldiers and he’s not short of ideas. Aware of the modern-day comparisons and ironies of the arguments of the soldiers (reflecting political ideologies that are revealed to maybe be fuzzy but not entirely incompatible) as well as wanting to deliver on the action front, Heaven’s Soldiers is a worthy effort that falls short largely on it’s script.

If Heaven’s Soldiers has a saving grace then it’s in the humour. The character of Lee Soon-shin gives Park Joong-hoon a rare opportunity to deadpan his way through some fairly obvious but likeable comedy, and I’m sure this works doubly well for audiences more familiar with the character. The rest of the cast (which includes Hwang Jeong-min, Kim Byeong-chun, Kim Ji-hyeon and Kim Seung-cheol) are fine but not really given any opportunity to shine as there’s little definition between them. Other than the obvious ‘North soldier’ and ‘South soldier’ characterisation they’re interchangeable, and even the sole female character is given little to do but reel off some plot exposition in order for the film to ‘explain’ the time-travel element.

As a popcorn flick Heaven’s Soldiers functions well, if only average. It is, of course, always fun to see a mix of ideas and images and having modern day soldiers fighting against 16th Century armies is a pretty good one. However, given the opportunities afforded by the story-line Heaven’s Soldiers ultimately plays everything too safe, leaving it too underdeveloped and with the comedy and drama aspects not really hanging well together. The middle section of the film is where it suffers the most – becoming little more than a series of sketches – but a strong finale goes a good way to help make the whole affair mindlessly enjoyable.

천군 (Heaven’s Soldiers)
Directed by Min Joon-ki
Produced by Cha Seung-jae
Written by Min Joon-ki
Starring Park Joong-hoon, Hwang Jeong-min, Kim Byeong-chun, Kim Ji-hyeon, Kim Seung-cheol

Heaven’s Soldiers Image © SidusFNH Corporation