Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review: Hong Kil-dong / 홍길동 (1986)

To the western world, the name of Hong Kil-dong is no doubt an unfamiliar one, but in Korea, the hero of writer Heo Gyun’s 16th century novel is a well known folk legend in the same vein as England’s Robin Hood. The illegitimate son of a nobleman and one of his concubines, Hong Kil-dong was rejected by his own family due to his mixed blood of noble & peasant, and on his travels through the corrupt outside world, he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

Over the years Hong Kil-dong has appeared in many forms, in the 1960s his tale was told in two animated feature length movies, in the 1980s he returned in animated form, but this time in an updated science fiction setting, throughout the 1990s he was the star of a series of popular video games, 5 years ago he got his own K-drama series, and as recently as 2010 he even got his own musical, with Sungmin and Yesung of Super Junior playing the title character.

However what is even less well known is that in 1986, North Korea gave us their own take on the legend of Hong Kil-dong, in the form of a kung-fu movie. To most people it may come as a surprise that North Korea had a movie industry at all, but during the 70s and 80s, indeed it did. Kim Jong-il was an avid movie enthusiast, who was said to love anything featuring Sean Connery or Elizabeth Tailor, and had a special soft spot for the Rambo movies. However, in 1978, fearing that the North Korean film industry wasn’t up to international standards, Kim did the natural thing any dictator would do – organized to kidnap South Korea's most famous director.

Shing Sang-ok was a respected director in South Korea, and his ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee, an equally respected actress. Kim lured Eun-hee to Hong Kong to discuss a potential role, where she was promptly kidnapped and dragged back to North Korea. Shing did the right thing and tried to find her, but then he also got kidnapped and was shipped off to North Korea wrapped in plastic. Skip forward 4 years of ‘political imprisonment’ later, & Kim formally re-introduced Shing & Choi to each other at a dinner party, and proceeded to order them to hug & re-marry, which they did, and then gave them the lowdown of how they were here to save the countries film industry.

Eventually, in 1986, Shing & Choi took a trip to Vienna to discuss distribution rights for the movies they’d been making, where upon landing they promptly fled to the American Embassy to plead for asylum, and never set foot in North Korea again. As it happened 1986 was also the year ‘Hong Kil-dong’ hit North Korean cinemas, and standing in for who probably would have been Shing is Kim Gil-in. Thankfully it was still a big hit. More surprisingly is that ‘Hong Kil-dong’ also took what was then the Eastern Bloc by storm as well, with it achieving a fair level of popularity in countries like Bulgaria and Russia.

While Kim Jong-il loved the Rambo movies, perhaps director Kim Gil-in was a big fan of Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers movies, as certainly the movies feel has echoes of the studios many swordplay dramas of the 1960s. The final showdown in particular, with Kil-dong decked out all in white and becoming increasingly bloodied, is very reminiscent of Jimmy Wang Yu in the finale of Chang Cheh’s classic 'Golden Swallow'. However there’s a fair amount of hand to hand work in there as well, reminding us that it is in fact the 1980s, with the sound effect of each punch amusingly sounding like a shotgun round being fired. The whole movie is filmed rather well, if sometimes a little choppy, and contains some pretty primitive wirework, as we witness Kil-dong jumping over trees and twirling along rooftops. The whole spectacle of it has a kind of old school charm, playing like something a good decade or more before its actual year of production.

The story tweaks the origin of Kil-dong a little, and interestingly the moral of the whole thing seems to promote individuality over the traditional Confucian ways that Koreans still live by to a degree. From being born to one of a nobleman’s lesser concubines, Kil-dong and his mother leave the royal household with the aim of making their own way in life. After being rescued from a group of marauding bandits by a bearded old man who just happens to be well versed in martial arts, the child Kil-dong begs him to take him on as his student. The old man agrees, and eventually Kil-dong rescues the daughter of a nobleman, leading to them falling in love. However the society in which they live would never let someone of mixed blood get married with someone from a noble bloodline, and the movie seems to take a heavy criticism of this way of thinking. Can Kil-dong and his love live happily together, or are they doomed to stay separated due to the pressures of society?

Eventually Kil-dong becomes the folk hero the story demands him to be, and he’s so good that even the bandits that originally tried to kill him see the error of their ways and agree to reform for the good of the nation. With everyone uniting as one, I guess the one thing you could say North Korean & South Korean historical movies have in common with each other is that, right on cue, this becomes the perfect time for the Japanese to come storming in and attempt to loot & rape everything in sight. In ‘Hong Kil-dong’ they take the form of a group of ninjas (interestingly, it seems the ninjas are actually being played by Japanese actors / abductees, as even though it’s been dubbed over in Korean, you can still hear the Japanese dialogue played low in the background!), and once Kil-dong sternly announces, “They must be foreigners!”, it’s time for some ninja slaughtering action.

‘Hong Kil-dong’ is a real curiosity, you can tell its aiming high with its modest budget, yet it still carries off an epic feel, in part due to the bombastic orchestral score that puts many a kung-fu movies soundtrack to shame. At the heart of it all is the question of if two people love each other then shouldn’t they be allowed to be together, but at the same time this is wrapped up in sometimes heavy handed messages about serving your country and your people. The speech the head bandit gives who’d previously tried to kill Kil-dong is particularly saccharine, but somehow it just adds to the movies almost other worldly charm, and in many way I guess North Korea is like another world. For those interested you can purchase the movie here.

By Paul Bramhall

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1 comment:

  1. Mr. Bramhall, I clicked on this to read a simple review about an action movie, and I was taken on a mind-blowing trip through the weird and shocking actions of a madman as well. Thank you for yet another thrilling and informative review and the story surrounding the movie's creation. HONG KIL-DONG is among the many films in my collection that I haven't watched yet, and now it's certainly much more appealing and interesting.