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Saturday, April 07, 2012

HAPKIDO (1972)

The one and only Mao Ying, about to seriously beat some ass with her Hapkido school's "discipline rod."

Released in the States during the 1970's chopsocky boom as LADY KUNG FU, this martial arts genre entry from Golden Harvest looks for all the world to be a knockoff of the same studio's FIST OF FURY (aka THE CHINESE CONNECTION), which starred Bruce Lee and was released some seven months earlier to much critical and box office success. It's got the same virtuous "Chinese school versus raging vicious bastard Japanese dojo" setup as its more famous Bruce Lee-driven template and even possesses camera compositions that mirror some of the memorable bits from the fights in FIST OF FURY

Taking place in 1934 during the period when Japan was basically ass-fucking as much of Asia as possible, the film follows the well-intentioned but disaster-laden path of three Chinese Hapkido students — each of varying degrees of mastery — who leave their Korean master's tutelage and set up a Hapkido school in Chang Zhou area of China. Big brother and little sister duo Kao Chang (Carter Wong) and Kao Yu Ying (Mao Ying, best known to U.S. audiences as Bruce Lee's ill-fated sister in ENTER THE DRAGON)) and classmate Fan Wei (Sammo Hung, back when he was billed as Hung Chin Pao) are all upstanding young martial artists whose school, the "Eagle School of Hapkido," also sidelines in the healing arts — they give out medical aid to the locals for free because they're such nice badasses — and all they want to do is follow their teacher's wish to accept the entire martial arts community as one big family and be tolerant of other styles, even those practiced by the Japanese.

Needless to say, this would have been a short and boring martial arts film if our heroes stuck to such tolerance and sweet-natured pacifism, so it's up to hot-headed Fan Wei to get things rolling by ignoring his master's advised "forbearance" and handing out a well-earned beating to a couple of drunken dine-and-dashers who also molested a sweet young lady. Unfortunately for Fan Wei (but fortunately for ass-whuppin' fans), the thugs are affiliated with the Japanese-run Black Bear dojo, a festering hive of budoka assholism that's sure to press the buttons of all audience members. In no time, the Black Bear school seeks vengeance on the Eagle School, whom they also believe to be part of a Chinese rebel faction, and things swiftly escalate to the point of big brother Chang permanently losing the use of his right arm after a vicious fifteen-against-one beatdown, Fan Wei administering major-league lethal damage to a number of Black Bear scum for basically beating and torturing innocent citizens in the street (which results in him being forced to hide out from the Black Bears' leader), and the Black bear leader demanding both the turnover of Fan Wei and the surrender of the Eagle School so that it would now operate under his banner. That leaves poor Yu Ying to deal with a veritable torrent of shit while attempting to heed her teacher's wishes and stay cool no matter what, but with the Japanese cruelly amping up the evil at every opportunity and quite unashamedly having a ball doing so, such a state of affairs is simply not to be...

While marketed as a showcase vehicle for Mao Ying, especially when released here as LADY KUNG FU, HAPKIDO is really a fairly-divided showcase for Wong, Hung and Mao. Mao turns in the most blistering fights of her career (choreographed by Chu Yuan Lung) and the last act is especially satisfying as she gives full rein to her long pent-up and deeply righteous rage with surgical savagery in the execution of her techniques. Carter Wong, who toiled in many so-so efforts, is given the opportunity to shine here and he certainly makes the most of it. And a barely-20-year-old Sammo Hung gives us an early and spectacular display of his jaw-dropping and extremely concussive fat-boy skills, and it's a delight watching him beat the motherfucking shit out of bad guys who really, really need killing.

Long available in dodgy "gray market/ghetto" kung fu movie shops as LADY KUNG FU in an eye-wiltingly bad print, the remastered DVD is in widescreen and looks gorgeous, plus it has English and Chinese audio options featuring both the awful '70's dub and a new dub, as well as subtitles (the viewing option that I recommend because both English dubs are pretty bad) and the original Chinese-language trailer. But for all the remastering and new English dubbing that went into it, the film's restorers apparently forgot to include subtitles for the last bits of dialogue after the climactic fight scene. Whatever's said when the dust settles after that fight is probably moot so it's no big loss, but it does detract from the overall quality of this edition.

Nonetheless, HAPKIDO is a textbook example of exactly the kind of thrills that made old school chopsocky flicks so much fun — despite it being so blatantly derivative of its Bruce Lee precursor — and it's highly recommended to both veteran fans and newcomers alike. In the pantheon of popular favorites from the genre's golden age, HAPKIDO more than stands the test of time and is easily the hands down best of Mao Ying's feature vehicles.

Packaging from the remastered DVD.

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