Friday, 16 March 2012

Mao March Marathon #2: Hapkido (1972)

We head into the second week of the Mao March Marathon looking at another Golden Harvest classic starring the first lady of Kung Fu Angela Mao, Hapkido.

Angela stars along side Carter Wong and Sammo Hung as three Chinese students living in Japanese occupied Korea studying Hapkido. After getting into a fight with a group of Japanese, their master (Ji Han-Jae) urges them to return to China to avoid the authorities but also establish a school in an attempt to spread the word of Hapkido. Before long Sammo is involved in a brawl with a local Japanese school setting off a course of events which will ultimately push our heroes' martial skill to the very limit.

If it's one thing that can be said about Angela Mao is that during her career she made some damn good movies. Hapkido is without a doubt one of them. Utilizing much of the same cast and crew that featured in When Taekwondo Strikes, Hapkido is another solid effort, although it should be mentioned this was made before that particular film. It would be difficult for a fan of the genre to watch this and not find anything they would like. This flick is jam packed with a hell of a lot of fight scenes to satisfy even the most hungry of martial arts junkies. Everyone and I mean everyone gives it their all to deliver a sometimes brutal and excellently paced film.

Like When Taekwondo Strikes, Hapkido concentrates on the Korean martial art in which the film derives it's title from. The difference between this particular style and Taekwondo is that Hapkido uses a lot more close quarters moves such as joint locks, throws and take downs as well as using kicks and various punching combinations. It's just the right kind of style that looks good on screen and everyone in the cast does a truly fantastic job of displaying it. Angela Mao in particular gets to really tear through the various bad guys as she takes on anyone who thinks they can beat her.

Storywise it's something that was very much trying to capitalize on the the success of Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury. Downtrodden Chinese kicking ass against an oppressive Japanese enemy. A lot of these films round this time used the Japanese this way. Despite World War II having ended almost three decades earlier, the people of China and Hong Kong were still traumatized from it's occupation by Japanese military forces. So when Bruce came along in Fist of Fury and defeated them in combat, it transformed him from movie star to the closest thing their society had to a real life superhero. Producers decided to see just how much mileage they could get out of the evil Japanese gimmick and movies like Hapkido were pushing the trend.

Nowadays it seems kind of cheesy but like I said the Chinese people still held a lot of resentment over what had happened during WWII so to them it felt like they were finally getting their comeuppance. The film even shares a few similar story beats with the Bruce Lee classic. In particular a scene which sees Angela take on a Dojo of karate students. The camerawork and the poses which Angela uses strike a startling resemblance the classic Bruce Lee bout. She really was being sold as the female version of Bruce and movies such as Hapkido  solidified that image.

The cast is pretty good for a movie made around this time. Angela does a great job in both the dramatic and action packed fighting. Carter gets to do a lot more then he later would in When Taekwondo Strikes and shows that he can be a good dramatic actor at times. Sammo plays the hothead of the three and doesn't get the display any of the charisma which would make him a much beloved figure of Hong Kong Cinema later in his career but he does a good enough job. Being an early 70's Hong Kong movie a whole roster of familiar faces crop up. Wei Ping-Ao, Gam Dai, Kok Lee-Yan, Nancy Sit and whole host of recognizable faces show up to lend a hand to the acting. Wei Ping-Ao in particular essays his role from Fist of Fury and skewers it slightly just to make him ever so slightly more despicable.

There wasn't one bad actor in the whole bunch which very much surprised me. As there was some horrible acting in display in the last movie I watched as part of the marathon. 

As mentioned before, Hapkido is positively dense with fist and foot action. It's a safe assumption that you'll be waiting no longer then ten minutes before the next thrown down kicks off. Sammo was in charge of the action and it shows. There is an incredibly good opening display of Hapkido shown by Ji Han-Jae. Master Ji was a key figure in introducing the art to the world and here he demonstrates some solid technique using various locks and throws. The way he handles himself and the expertise put on display let the audience know he is the real deal and Hapkido is a martial art that should be taken seriously. So much so that he actually comes off as quite intimidating which I'm sure was the intended effect of the scene.

There are a number of stand out fight scenes. Just watch the fight between Sammo and Bruce Leung, better known the audiences as the bad guy in Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle. Sammo gets to really let his fists fly and completely dominates Bruce in such a way that audiences were getting a glimpse of the future of Hong Kong Action Cinema. He doesn't use any really flashy moves but his punches and kicks look really powerful even more so when you couple it with Sammo's burly physique. Carter Wong also gets to really flex his fists when he has a really great fight against Pai Ying. While it's a fight in which Carter ultimate loses, it shows that he could handle himself and really knew how to do a good kick that looks great on camera.

Angela however is the one that gets to really shine bright. Her fight against Jacky Chen gets her showing what she can really do when given some good choreography to work with. It starts off as a weapons fight with a Japanese Katana against a metal rod then quickly moves into an empty handed fight before finishing off with Angela getting some creative use out of an umbrella. It's here that you begin to see Sammo really using his head and trying to come up with unique and interesting ways to portray fighting on screen. He also gets Angela to use that trademark ponytail of hers as a makeshift whip. Clever little things like that are what make Chinese Martial Arts Cinema so much more entertaining then anything Hollywood could have come up with at the time.

With all these brutal brawls breaking out it leads us right to a stunning finale which sees Angela getting help from none other when Wang In-Sik in a rare good guy role. His sharp features and stern expression made him much suited to playing the bad guy but here he's fighting for the side of good for once. His fight against a group of Karate students show why he was one of the more underrated boot men of the genre and it's a definite must-see it goes with out saying.

Hapkido has a place on my list of Top Hong Kong Films Ever Made and it just makes the Mao March Marathon all the more enjoyable. If you haven't seen it, go do yourself a big favor and hunt down the DVD right away as you'll have a real good time, I promise you.

Join me next time wen we'll in the third week of the Mao March Marathon. See you then folks!

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