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Made in Korea
A region 2 DVD review of HAPKIDO / HE QI DAO by Slarek
 

Back in the days when martial arts cinema first exploded in the UK, when I was lying my way into see them by dressing up, standing tall and badly faking an 18-year-old's cocky self-confidence, there were certain films that made a particular impact on a kid who was starry-eyed at a genre that seemed to him to exist solely to make his teenage years more tolerable. Among these were Chang-hwa Jeong's 1972 King Boxer (aka The Five Fingers of Death, the very first kung-fu film I saw), absolutely everything with Bruce Lee in it, and Hapkido. The last of these was a revelation not just for me but for all of my fellow genre fans and for one simple reason – it was the first kung-fu film we'd seen that featured a female lead. And she was dynamite. At least that's what we thought. We were 14 years old, for pity's sake, and Angela Mao – for that was her name – was beautiful and deadly. To us she was Emma Peel crossed with Bruce Lee and we all fell in love.

A long time has passed since then and the film effectively vanished from my field of vision. It remained a title, a memory of a happy time spent in the cinema. Actually recalling plot or incident information proved increasingly difficult, beyond the certainty that the fights were great and there was some serious leaping at one point. It's hard to describe how excited I was on hearing the news that Hong Kong Legends were restoring and releasing the film on UK DVD, although my enthusiasm was tinged by a touch of apprehension. It had been a long time, I'd only seen it once, and I had an adolescent boy's crush on the female star. After all these years and all the movies I've seen since, would it live up to my expectations?

Believe it or not, it actually surpassed them.

OK, not everything has aged comfortably. As with Lee's Fist of Fury of the same year, the central conflict here is racial in nature, with the Japanese cast squarely as the bad guys. Now given Japan's history as an aggressor in both China and Korea, it is inevitable that past hostilities should find their way into movies, especially those set during periods of occupation. But I never feel comfortable with bad guys who are identified as being irredeemably bad purely on the grounds of their race, and they do bang on about it in Hapkido – few opportunities are missed to curse the evil Japanese or get horrified at their cartoonishly heartless nastiness. But if you can set this element aside (and as a Japanophile I had to made a big effort here), in the areas that count, Hapkido is an absolute belter.

Having loudly established the Japanese as the villains, the charmingly dated but action-packed opening credits morph into an extended sequence whose main purpose is to introduce the audience to hapkido itself, a Korean martial art whose fifty year evolution, principally under the direction of Yong Sul Choi, was not actually given a name until 1957 and was shaped into the fighting technique recognised today by Master Han Jae Ji. OK, few of us are tuning in to any martial arts film for a history lesson, but Hapkido's first ace-in-the-hole is that the film's Korean master, the one training the visiting Chinese students who are soon to return home and start their own schools, is none other than Han Jae Ji himself. Thus when he demonstrates to his students just how it should be done he does so with authority and thrilling skill.

Once back in Hong Kong, three of the students – played by Angela Mao, Carter Wong and Sammo Hung (all superb) – set up their hapkido school and set about introducing themselves to the masters at all of the other martial arts establishments in the district. All of which goes well enough, but wouldn't you know it, there's a Japanese-run the Black Bear School (whose students' ability to fight energetically even when falling-down drunk is actually rather impressive), and even before any official introductions have been attempted, the hot-headed Sammo gives two of them a sound seeing-to after they refuse to pay a restaurant bill. It all goes downhill from there in very typical generic fashion, as a tit-for-tat battle between the dynamic trio and the Black Bear School ensues, in the process increasing the similarities with Fist of Fury, which danced in the same arena in similar fashion.

But let's be honest, you didn't come for the story, you came for the action, and here's where the film soars. I would suggest that the comparisons with Fist of Fury extend beyond plot and year of release to include the fight choreography and martial arts skills of the stars. All three are on-screen dynamite here, none more so that the fabulous Mao, who proves every bit as explosive as I remember – man, this woman can execute four consecutive, high speed, perfectly aimed roundhouse kicks without drawing breath. This is old school martial arts at its most awe-inspiring, with a series of blistering battles created completely in the fight choreography rather than the editing suite, with wide and mid shots used to showcase the skills of the performers, alternated with mobile hand-held footage that places us in the centre of the action and matches its energy. There's even a bit of ultra slow motion to really show off the awesome agility of some of the moves. The pace of the action means you'll have to look fast for the early appearances by Yeun Biao and Jackie Chan.

In all respects Hapkido is a most worthy companion piece to Fist of Fury and absolutely deserves to be held in similarly high regard. Hong Kong Legends are marketing this release as a rediscovered classic, a potentially risky claim that for my money is fully justified. This really is what martial arts cinema is all about.

sound and vision

OK, the film was released back in 1972 and has not been widely seen here since, so we have to make allowances. Wait a minute, no we don't, it looks terrific! Hong Kong Legends have done it again, providing a generally first class 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer from a near perfect condition high-definition original. The picture is sharp without too much in the way of edge enhancement (there's evidence of some, but it's not painful), and colour and contrast are generally very good. The latter does vary a little, being a tad strong at times and a little weaker at others, although the margin of variance is not great (it does change mid-shot at one point). On the whole, another great job from HKL.

The original mono Mandarin soundtrack has been supplemented by Mandarin and English 5.1 remixes. The 5.1 Mandarin track has clearer voice reproduction than the mono original, and the music has been sonically opened out. Some sound effects are also clearer, but it should be noted that some appear to have been re-recorded or even added – background birdsong and distant barking dogs on the 5.1 track do not appear on the mono.

extra features

I promise that this is the last time I'll go on about this, but this is one film that cries out for the sort of detailed expertise that Bey Logan used to bring to films of this era, providing biographical information on the participants and technical data on the martial art itself. Maybe one day he'll return to the fold to do a special edition.

What we do have is a some expert opinion on hapkido itself from instructor at UK Chang's Hapkido Academy, Tammy Parlour. First of all she provides a blow-by-blow breakdown of Master Ji's post credits martial arts demonstration in Hapkido Examined (3:41), then is interviewed about herself, the martial art and the film in more detail in Interview with Tammy Parlour (14:43). Both proved interesting enough to prompt some immediate research on Han Jae Ji and the development of his martial art.

We also have the usual Hong Kong Legends produced UK Promo (1:08), which sells the film quite well as old school kung fu for a new generation of fans.

Finally we have the Original Theatrical Trailer (4:11), which does a decent job of selling the film as an action classic by stringing some of the best fight footage together and identifying the fighting credentials of its participants. Like the film, it's in fine condition.

summary

There is nothing here that is likely to win over those not sympathetic to martial arts cinema, but if you're already a fan then this is an absolute must-have, one of the early genre greats that has been very impressively restored for this Hong Kong Legends release. If you've only seen Angela Mao in her small role as Bruce Lee's sister in Enter the Dragon, you owe it to yourself you see just how great a martial arts performer she was, and as a bonus you get a whole host of other fine fighters all demonstrating their considerable skills, including the man who invented the martial art of the title. If you want to know why many of us still prefer the old-school kung-fu films, you need look no further than Hapkido.

Hapkido

Hong Kong 1972
93 mins
director
Feng Huang
starring
Angela Mao
Carter Wong
Sammo Hung
Han Jae Ji
Ying Bai

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
Mandarin
subtitles .
English
extras
Hapkido Examined featurette
Interview with Tammy Parlour
Trailers
distributor
Hong Kong Legends
release date
28 August 2006
review posted
27 August 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews