Seen in Jeonju

Secret of Troupe 77 (1978)

5th February 2010

secret of troupe 77Originally posted February 22, 2009—There have been a lot of movies lately set in Korea during the age of Japanese rule. Modern Boy, Radio Dayz, Once Upon a Time, Dajjimawa Lee, The Good The Bad and the Weird to name but a few. In those films, we are treated to the brave actions of freedom fighters battling against suppression and dreaming of the day when their nation would be independent once more. A true hero of that time was Bang Jeong-hwan (1899-1931), a writer and staunch supporter of Korean independence. He gained fame in his short lifetime however as a children’s advocate. He wrote stories and plays aimed at children, often with strong patriotic messages, and introduced western fairytales into Korea. In 1926, he wrote the children’s novel, The Secret of Troupe 77–one of approximately 50 of his creations. The story proved to be very popular and enduring. Long after his death the tale of The Secret of Troupe 77 was made into a radio serial, a comic book and finally, in 1978, an animated film.

The Secret of Troupe 77 is not really about the character prominantly featured on the poster. That is the Black Hood, a mysterious figure fighting to free Koreans who have been kidnapped and forced into labor. Instead, it is about two children, Sang-ho and Soon-ja, who were kidnapped as toddlers and sold into a circus. There they were taught to fly on the trapeze and walk the tightrope. They are little more than slaves in the circus but are afraid to attempt escape for fear on incurring the wrath of the circus master and his equally cruel wife.  They also realizes that they have nowhere to go even if they do escape because both were very young when kidnapped and they cannot remember their home .

That all changes one day when an old man enters the big top and announces he is their uncle. He had been searching for the children for the last 9 years and was on the verge of giving up when he received a mysterious note indicating that his niece and nephew were at the circus.  However, before he can get them away from their life of forced entertainment, he is stopped by the members of the circus, badly beaten and thrown out of the circus. They children are also severly punished for listening to the old man’s tale.

All is not lost however. Two mysterious notes arrive, the first for Sang-ho and Soon-ja telling them to slip outside at night where they can be helped by the Black Hood. The other note to the circus master telling him that the Black Hood will attack that night. The circus master arms the members of his troupe and everyone is on edge. A simple distraction is all it takes to get all the members of the troupe rushing outside to fight whom they think is the Black Hood leaving the children free to escape out back. However, the Black Hood did not count on the shrewdness of the wife of the circus master. She succeeds in preventing Soon-ja’s escape but Sang-ho is able to jump the wall. Another trick is required to free Sang-ho’s sister and then the two children make their way to the hospital to see their uncle. However, freedom for Soon-ja is short lived as the circus troupe has learned where they are. Lead by The Viper, who arrived that night from Japan, they kidnap the girl once again and slay the uncle. Sang-ho escapes and receives yet another mysterious note directing him to go to China if he wants to rescue his sister.

The story is quite good although the art is not as well-done as it could be. While I liked the style–very similar to the original Robot Taekwon V and Marachi Arachi–it had some problems. For example, the artist did not pay much attention to the background of the story. It is set in the 1920s yet we see people walking around during a marathon scene wearing mini-skirts. Also the way the children’s father is drawn did not match his description (With his clothes and facial hair looked more like an extra from Fiddler on the Roof than the children’s father). The Secret of Trope 77 is directed by Park Seung-cheol who only has one other film to his name, another animation entitled Space Boy Casey.

This film has recently been made available on DVD by Blue Media. The DVD features a restored version of the movie and most of it is excellent. However, the colors in the last ten or fifteen minutes of the movie are faded and it seems as if this was left unrestored. Unlike many other old animated Korean films that have been given DVD releases in the past few years, The Secret of Troupe 77  has English subtitles making it accessible to foreigners who wish  to have a better understanding of early Korean animation.

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