Hapkido (1972)

Posted in Reviews by - October 21, 2012
Hapkido (1972)

A seminal kung fu movie moment, not just for the financial prospects of Raymond Chow’s fledgling Golden Harvest but also thematically. Although Angela Mao may have been following the precedence set by King Hu’s wuxia heroines (Cheng Pei Pei, Hsu Feng), in hindsight it’s hard not to see the gender politics of Hapkido as something of a trailblazer.

She plays a female Bruce Lee in essentially a rehash of the Fist of Fury format. Most of the cast return in strangely similar roles and some scenes are almost identical: Paul Wei’s offering of an insulting sign; a finale pitting empty-handed Chinese techniques against Japanese swords. Mao was subsequently a shoo-in to play Bruce Lee’s sister in Enter the Dragon, but this is her alma mater. Confident, fearless, tactical, sympathetic and astute, she commands the final third of the film by embarking on a one woman rampage, kicking through the baddies with the help of her whip-like ponytail. With Hapkido, her legacy as one of Hong Kong’s leading femme fatales was assured.

Former scriptwriter Huang Feng directs this studio film with a steely gaze – the Golden Harvest back lot initially doubling as Japanese-occupied Korea. Japanese karate bastards bully the immigrant Chinese population into absconding: with their sifu absent, prize pupils Angela Mao, Carter Wong and Sammo Hung return to war-torn China with the intention of starting over. The three characters represent altercating conditions of living under oppression: Sammo’s hotheadedness, Wong’s appeasement, Mao’s stoicism.

In a telling nod to Sino-Korean bipartisanship, the Chinese are portrayed as masters of a relatively modern Korean discipline – the titular Hapkido – demonstrated in the first part of the film by one of the style’s key creators, Ji Han-jae. What starts as a somewhat calculated PR exercise evolves into a powerhouse revenge fable, as the Chinese dissidents steadily take a stand and fight their Japanese invaders. The choreography is handled excellently by a young Sammo Hung and his action team – including stunt work from Corey Yuen, Yuen Biao and Jackie Chan – but to dismiss the film as a mere curiosity does the movie a disservice. It is a fighting classic.

AKA: Hap Ki Do; Lady Kung Fu

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Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a laptop in London, UK.

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