Monday, March 5, 2012

Hammer & Tooth: My First Encounter with Korean Cinema

As a long time stalwart of Hong Kong action cinema, you could say that I had a familiarity with the Korean movie scene of yesteryear without even being aware of it. Back in the late 70’s Hong Kong audiences, and the world in general, had become tired of the endless Bruce Lee imitation movies and stilted kung-fu choreography that went with them, and where looking for something new.

Thankfully producers also recognized that the times where changing and famous producer Ng See Yuen set off to find new blood to revitalize the flagging genre. As it happens, most of the new blood he would find came from Korea. Korea already had its own martial arts movie scene, although it was only a shadow of Hong Kong’s vast output, dominated by the Shaw Brothers and upcoming Golden Harvest studios.

Hwang Jang-lee prepares to unload.
However the difference in style was immense, with most of the Korean output focusing on the national martial arts of taekwondo, hapkido, and alike, which where as stylistically different to Chinese kung-fu as jazz is to heavy metal.  And so what could be said was to be the first Korean wave began, with immensely talented martial artists who where to become household names, and still are, in the genre of Hong Kong action headed across the water to the small British owned island – Hwang Jang-lee, Hwang In-shik, Kim Tai-jung, & Casanova Wong to name but a few.

For most of the next decade the high flying kicks of these Korean boot masters would light up the screens of an uncountable number of Hong Kong movies. While, as with almost any foreigner in a Hong Kong movie, they where often cast as the bad guy, all of them had their shot at playing the good guy at one time or another as well.

Hwang In-shik strikes a pose.
The Korean guys soon got a reputation as being the toughest around. While many of the Hong Kong action stars came from a Peking Opera based background, or at least had a high level of screen fighting training under there belts, the likes of Hwang Jang-lee filmed his first few movies with no knowledge of how to kick any other way than with 100% contact. A possible problem considering this was a guy who had actually killed someone with his kicking before. Such ferocity famously led to Jackie Chan losing a few teeth in the final fight from what could be considered both his, & Lee’s, breakout movie, ‘Snake in the Eagles Shadow’. Chan could only have been dismayed to find out he would have to square off against Lee again in his next movie, ‘Drunken Master’, and so upon filming his first two directorial outings, ‘Young Master’ & ‘Dragon Lord’, he called on the talents of Hwang In-shik in the hope of coming from away the movies a little less battered and bruised.

Casanova Wong goes kung-fu style.
There are countless tales of the Korean crew’s influences and incidents in the world of Hong Kong cinema, but that’s for another post, for now I felt it was the respectful thing to do to acknowledge these guys as my first taste of Korean power on screen.

Somewhere amidst my enjoyment of these movies, 2002 to be precise, I was sat in the living room of my parent houses in Liverpool, England as a 21 year old with itchy feet. As I sat there reading the newspaper I came across the local cinema times, and there, in the corner of the page, was a small picture of a movie showing in the multiplex just a few minutes down the road from where I was. Even before I’d seen the title, there was something about the image that just grabbed me straight away, despite it only being in black & white. There where two men, both in shallow water and soaked to the skin, and one man has the other by the neck with one hand, brandishing a knife in the other. The image of violence was a powerful one, and even as a small square in the bottom of a large newspaper page, it jumped out. The movie was called ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’, and was to be what would become the first instalment in director Park Chan-wook’s unrelated vengeance trilogy.

'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance' trailer

Less than 24 hours later, I was walking out the cinema feeling like I’d been punched in the chest. I didn’t know it then, but this was a feeling I’d become used to when watching certain Korean movies. But for now, it was my first time, and I was in awe of the movies relentlessly grim tale of vengeance and how it affects the people who seek it, but at the same time aware that it had been told with such a cinematic flair and even beauty, there was no way this was going to be my last go at Korean cinema.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’ is a special movie for me not just because it’s the reason I got into Korean cinema, it also set me up as a follower of anything that has Song Kang-ho or Park Chan-wook’s name attached to it, for better or worse (& at the time of writing Song Kang Ho’s last movie ‘Hindsight / 푸른 소금was definitely for the worse!). It really was the beginning of my love affair for all things Korean, and now 10 years and 5 actual visits to the wonderful country that is Korea later, my passion is if anything stronger than ever.

Have you seen this movie? 
Of course back in 2002 things where very different. On a high from the suspense soaked 2 hours I’d just spent on the edge of my seat, I immediately set to work on checking out what else I could see from this strange and unknown land. So you can imagine it was all a bit anti-climatic when I discovered the only other movies readily available, outside of the well known pure love movies, where Chan-wook’s previous effort, the classic ‘JSA / 공동경비구역’, the gangster movies ‘Public Enemy / 공공의 적’ & ‘Friend / 친구’,  and a little known movie called ‘Shiri / 쉬리’, which I often petition to get re-named ‘The One Korean Movie that Every One has Seen’.

That was it, four movies and then a vast nothingness. Now looking back, I’m thankful that I caught the latest Korean movie wave literally just as it began, and I’ve been able to enjoy what are now considered classics as and when they’ve come out. I have a feeling 20 years from now I will be like one of the old-timers that often frequent kung-fu movie forums, who recall the days when they saw the original cinema run of a vintage Jackie Chan movie. That was 2002, as it happened 2003 would be the year that provided confirmation for me that Korean cinema was the best in the world, with the release of Chan-wook’s second installment in his vengeance trilogy, ‘OldBoy / 올드보이’, ‘Silmido / 실미도’, and my current favorite director, Kim Ji-woon’s horror movie, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters / 장화, 홍련’.

In the decade that’s passed since then Korean cinema has been through it’s highs and lows, but it’s a cinema that’s never given up on originality, and that shines through over and over again, be it a tear inducing melodrama, a hammer wielding vengeance thriller, or a laugh out loud comedy, and long may it do so.

Paul Bramhall


  1. Good article, Paul.
    Hey! Why isn't your name "One Armed Boxer"?
    Kidding, kidding!
    Looking forward to your other articles. hope everyone enjoys them!


  2. Hi Paul,

    That was a very nice read. Informative, detailed, and filled with your very obvious passion for the subject.

    I think my first taste of Korean cinema may have been SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (which I just watched for the third time, this time sharing it with my fascinated wife and teen son) or J.S.A., not sure which. I also recently rewatched the (IMHO) horribly underrated, terrifically original SAVE THE GREEN PLANET. Long live Korean cinema!

    I look forward to reading your other blog entries brother.

    Peace, "Kung Fu Bob" O'Brien

  3. Hey guys, thanks for the comments! Bob I've actually never seen 'Save the Green Planet', shame on me, and you're not the first person to mention it to me either. It just got added to my ever growing to-watch list. I think you'll enjoy my latest blog, it's about a certain boot master who you're fond of drawing.

  4. Right on, I'm about to read it.

    I've just rewatched SAVE THE GREEN PLANET and I'm on a kick trying to get everyone I know to watch it. I looked up the director- hoping to find more films of his to watch- but it looks like he hasn't helmed any features since! I saw that he contributed a segment to a film, but it was saddled with some crushing reviews.

  5. I had no idea that there were Koreans running around in the HK action cinema scene of yesteryear. Thanks for sharing!