Monday, November 26, 2012

The Road to Action…(Via some Drama & Suspense)

The month of November saw the ‘Cinema on the Park’ screen assaulted by a barrage of fists and kicks, as four movies representing the best of old school and modern day Korean action tore up the screen. Now that the dust has settled, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on the brief but invaluable insight I got into the organisation of such an event, through my involvement in screening the Australian premieres of ‘Miss, Please Be Patient’ & ‘Canton Viper’.

The initial seed for Action Month was planted way back in January this year, when after a three year hiatus living in Tokyo, which saw me visiting Korea several times, I returned to Sydney and purely by accident stumbled across the Korean Culture Office. I discovered the Cinema on the Park program almost immediately, and set about finding a way to contribute my own love of Korean movies through another one of my passions – writing.

Somewhere along the way though, I couldn’t get it out of my mind of what an opportunity it would be to showcase a part of Korean cinema history that is overlooked, and in many cases completely unheard of, by most people – the kung-fu movie genre of the 70s and 80s. Indeed the genre itself is almost a forgotten one in the history of Korean cinema, as while countless Korean super-kickers lit up the screens in Hong Kong kung-fu movies, movies produced on home soil were often lacking in budget, quality chorography, and basically every other ingredient that makes a kung-fu movie enjoyable.

For that reason the whole genre of Korean kung-fu is usually completely ignored, or even worse, passed off as an unwatchable mess. Such an attitude makes this small part of Korean cinema an incredibly murky area to find out information on, indeed even Hong Kong movies that were made on the cheap in the Philippines gain more recognition than their Korean counterparts. Even now, an unknown amount of movies during the late 70’s / early 80’s were in fact Hong Kong / Korean co-productions, but a check on the internet usually has them only listed as purely Hong Kong productions, with the Korean input not mentioned, or more likely, not even known about.
Korean Bruce Lee impersonator...Dragon Lee!

I’m in a lucky position to have various acquaintances of mine involved in going to great measures to dig out what are often considered lost movies, and setting about remastering and subtitling them to be enjoyed by a wider audience – from Houndslow Team and their work on ‘Miss, Please Be Patient’ and ‘Canton Viper’, to the Fu-Subs team with their releases of ‘Tigresses’ and ‘Armless Swordsman’ (yes you read that right), to Jamal’s Kung-Fu Projects with his versions of ‘Hong Kil Dong’ and ‘Evil Hits Evil’ – for those that want it, these obscure Korean movies are out there.

It was with these movies in mind that I suggested to the Korean Cultural Office’s Artistic Director, Kieran Tully, to have one of Cinema on the Park’s monthly themes as something along the lines of ‘Old-School Action Month’ or ‘Korean Kung-Fu Month’. Thankfully, he was receptive to the idea, however for fear of scaring everyone away through showing only old-school kung-fu, it was decided to book end two of the old-school movies with a pair of newer productions, opening with the first Korean / Thai co-production ‘The Kick’, and closing with the Seoul Action School documentary, ‘Action Boys’. The final name we decided on was of course – Action Month!

The choices for the two old-school movies were obvious to me, ‘Miss, Please Be Patient’ had recently had its DVD release from Houndslow Team, which was not only its first time on DVD but also the groups first release. A movie long considered lost, and starring the guy who replaced Bruce Lee in ‘Game of Death’, Kim Tai-jung, it seemed a natural choice. There was also an interview with Tai-jung planned for the DVD, however sadly he passed away just before its release, so as it is it serves as a fitting tribute to a martial artist who briefly lit up the screens with his athletic performances.

Who's that pasty white guy on-screen?  Oh, it's me.
The second, ‘Canton Viper’, was also a good fit. Any discussion of who the greatest kicker to ever grace the screen will inevitably always have one answer – Hwang Jang-lee. He played the bad guy in over 200 Hong Kong kung-fu movies, while making barely a handful in his homeland, most very early in his career. ‘Canton Viper’ is unique because, not only was it a Korean movie made in the midst of his popularity, but it was also directed by the man himself. Of course there was a slight catch to showing this, and that was at the time of organising Action Month, the Houndslow guys had actually only just located a copy of the movie, after searching for a number of years, so they had 6 months to get it remastered and subtitled if it was to be shown in time for the November 15th screening.

I also had a stroke of genius (well, at least I thought it was at the time), which was to get in contact with film-maker Jon-James Hodson, who I knew was in post-production on his own Hwang Jang-lee documentary ‘The Anonymous King’, and see if he could secure an interview with Jang-lee to discuss the movie and give it an introduction. This interview, you could say, became the source of the drama and suspense. To describe quite what goes into organising an interview when one person is based in Australia (myself), Houndslow Team are remastering and subtitling the movie in Canada, Jon-James Hodson is in the UK, and the team who’d do the interview are in Korea, would no doubt involve Einstein like diagrams and explanations.

But it went something like this – Jon-James Hodson had maintained his contacts from his time in Korea, so he could arrange for the interview to be done through them, therefore we had to wait upon hearing Jang-lee’s schedule before we could take any action. The Houndslow guys in Canada understandably wanted to wait until the movie was finished being subtitled before generating a list of questions to ask about it, as this was the first time the movie ever had English translation, it would also be the first time for any of us to see it. Then Hwang Jang-lee broke a rib and cut his eye open while performing a flying kick over a table at the age of seventy. Finally, with wounds healed and schedules fixed, we got a date for the interview to take place, only the movie still wasn’t finished being subtitled, so some of the questions we wanted to ask were essentially being asked blind.

Hwang Jang-lee....that's more like it!
To say that organising such a short piece of footage was a steep learning curve was an understatement. While Hwang Jang-lee was very obliging and polite, upon viewing it for the first time I came to a realization – the interviewer was essentially just acting as a mouthpiece for our questions, and of course had no knowledge of ‘Canton Viper’, or possibly even that much of Hwang Jang-lee. When Jon-James made his documentary he was interviewing him in person with the other staff providing translation, while here it was a case of a guy asking translated into Korean questions from a piece of paper, so any chance of elaboration or further questioning was of course not going to happen. For me it was a lesson learnt in the art of preparing interviews with overseas stars of a different culture and language, and I’m determined to improve on my next effort.

Still, despite the circumstances Jang-lee delivered some interesting insights into making the movie, and at the end of the day, an interview with Hwang Jang-lee is still an interview with Hwang Jang-lee. The DVD was wrapped up a mere couple of weeks before the screening was due to be shown, however due to such inconveniences as typhoons and postal strikes, the days before the screening were spent with me anxiously opening my mail box to the same sight – emptiness. After various panic stricken e-mails back and forth, the rather epic sized file began being downloaded onto an accessible drive the night before the screening, and all we could do was wait with baited breath to hope it would be complete in time to show.

As a plan B, I had a rare DVD with the Korean edit of Hwang Jang-lee’s other self-directed movie, ‘Hitman in the Hand of Buddah’, which I planned to present as the healthy alternative to ‘Canton Viper’ should everything go pear shaped. However with an hour or so to spare, the download completed and we were able to show the movie to an unsuspecting audience, blissfully unaware of the behind the scenes drama!

Overall I was really happy with the audience reactions to ‘Miss, Please Be Patient’ (which was voted the third most popular movie out of all the Cinema on the Park screenings!). Although it’s been remastered, there is only so much you can do to a beaten and bashed several decades old VHS tape, so I felt nervous at how people would react to the washed out picture and slightly hissy sound. Thankfully the guys at the KCO did a great job of making ‘Miss, Please Be Patient’ look and sound as good as it could on the projection screen, and even better was seeing the audience get into it, enjoying the laughs and the fights in equal measure.

If I was nervous for ‘Miss, Please Be Patient’, then ‘Canton Viper’ almost gave me a heart attack. Not only did I know it was a much more serious movie, but thanks to the last minute download, I was also watching it for the first time along with the audience! If there were any errors or mishaps with the download, it was going to play out onscreen in real time for all to see. As the movie started some members of the audience were initially left with an expression half way between bewilderment and bemusement. Particularly the many scenes found in countless kung-fu movies that involve people leaping into the air, and quickly cutting to them landing in a completely different location, but as the story kicked in everyone got more into the events on screen, and gradually my cold sweats subsided.

All in all I consider Action Month to be a success, and was proud to have played a part in it, be it organising interviews, providing the movies, or presenting them on stage, it was all enjoyable if somewhat nerve wracking fun, and hopefully it’ll open the doors for more of these movies to be shown at Cinema on the Park. ‘Armless Swordsman’ anyone?


  1. Loved...this...article!!!!! You actually had me sweating when describing the wait and turmoil of receiving a viewable copy of CANTON VIPER. I'm so glad that everything worked out and that the films were properly enjoyed by all. And I think showing the documentary ACTION BOYS was a smart move. So, I take it you'll be doing this again next year? I think you should. You did a good thing. Don't stop.

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