Tuesday, June 5, 2012

HONG KIL DONG (1986, Kil-in Kim, Korea Film)

The first thing you should now about this blog is that, for now, I am only showcasing films I truly love and admire. This is not (at this time) a review site, because a review site implies a separation of wheat from chaff, lambs from goats. A reviewer wades in the river of the medium and spears the keepers. I am not a reviewer. This blog is a celebration of the films that I love and that have touched me from this wonderful genre that gets far too little respect. I don't fish, I just tell you what's good at the seafood joint.

Happily, the style I've chosen contains dozens of enshrined classics; films that are legendary for a select few, films that are just waiting for you to discover them. It also has, even in a genre that is seemingly so dominated by fetishists, lost classics. These films have escaped notice from even enthusiasts, and by happy chance I have discovered and thrilled to them, and now share with you, Dear Reader. The first two films detailed in this blog come from the first category: they may draw blank stares from your Dad, but if you bring them up to a devotee, you'll get a spark of recognition and a delighted smile. This one, on the other hand...

This one is a whole different story.

This film was the closest thing to a direct inspiration for this blog that I can point to, I searched the North Korean (That's right, and more on that later) film database out of idle curiosity, stumbled across this film, and searched the best database on the internet for martial arts films (kungfucinema.com) and found no info. That disappointment planted the germ of this blog into my mind, and now here it is. What this blog is intended to be is a free form recollection of my experiences with my favorite martial arts movies, as well as a place to discuss themes and signs that recur in these films and try to gauge what these films say to my friends and I. It hasn't been that yet, but hope springs eternal...

I first watched this film in a South Philadelphia row home above a pharmacy with four of my closest friends on a Thursday night. My friends: Vitaly, Tom, Joe, and Steve are all film buffs of one stripe or another, but I wouldn't say that martial arts movies make up their poison of choice. To them, the awesome displays of punching and kicking are Murg Vindaloo and not Roast Chicken. But they were more than happy to indulge me this time. After all, how many times do you get to see a kung fu movie from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea? So we crammed into the bedroom with the biggest TV, dimmed the lights, and watched a YouTube rip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVnXAuaFY_s) of this film, not really knowing what to expect.

It was glorious. It was nothing at all what I expected and it's kind of a minor masterpiece. Somehow, the strange alchemy of film making turned elements that normally make films from Communist governments crashing bores into boons that gave film even more mythic power. This is even true of the physical film itself; since the crew was working with 20 year old disused Soviet film stock this movie looks like it came from the Golden Age of Shaw Brothers' wuxia run. Marxist propaganda? Normally it makes films impossibly preachy, but here it's all subverted into a Robin Hood style hero with an inter-class love subplot that only serves to aid the meaty melodrama, and a bitter sweet ending that differentiates this film from the Shaw Brothers classics it emulates. Even the Nationalism plays out well enough as it gives our hero enemies worthy of his invincible prowess: a group of bloodthirsty Ninja.

The first fight scene got a big rise out of the assembled, and for good reason: our main character and his mother are beset upon by highwaymen and in rushes Hong kil-dong's grandfather to defend them. This commences a virtuoso display of how to write and direct a fight scene: ol' Grandpa here snaps a steel sword in half and effortlessly disables the rogues with pressure point attacks, which will not abate until they have realized the error of their ways.

Next comes the obligatory training sequence, which is not really noteworthy except for a skill dissolve to show the passage of time which is worthy of the great Hong Kong masters. I cannot stress this enough: the people who made this film knew what they were doing. They wanted to construct an epic hero story, and they do without any of cloying irony that tends to drive American attempts at this sort of thing down. These people were fucking thrilled to make a kung fu movie, and they didn't feel the need to apologize for it. That approach had an unusual effect: they took it seriously, so we took it seriously.

Nowhere is this more evident than in what was, for us, the show-piece of the movie, a scene in which Hong kil-dong's confederates are searching for the evil Ninjas in the countryside and decide to rest at roadside inn. The presence of a lone black horse at the inn makes one of the men suspicious, and the scene becomes a Hitchcockian exercise in suspense. Does this elderly woman know more than she's saying? Will the Ninja attack now or after they've left? Can they survive a Ninja attack? My friend Tom commented after the film that he knew the scene worked because we were deadly silent throughout all of it. In our group, even with films we love, this is pretty rare.

There were other things that got the group's attention: a stunning shot of the main character meditating atop a mountain that looked like matte painting the first time but turned out to be unfake-able; a Stalinist take on the classic tea-house fight where Hong kil-dong gets revenge on the highwaymen who attacked his family; a second scene worthy of Hitch (!!!) where a group of evil land-owners hear a flute (Hong kil-dong's signal that he is near) and go crazy until they find a little boy playing the flute right outside. They take the flute away and have a good laugh, until they hear the flute music start up again.

This movie is available on YouTube for free and you should pirate the shit out of it, because no one who made it got a dime and this stuff is too good for Kim Jong-il anyway.

COOLEST MOMENTS (I didn't get to):
- Anytime Hong kil-dong gets in his superhero outfit.
- A Ninja who has failed in his mission is murdered by his fellow Ninja via a vital point strike that makes him spew blood everywhere.
- A group of Ninja are surrounded on a beach and drop a smoke bomb. When the smoke clears the Koreans realize the ninja have burrowed under the sand, and they have to drive them out TREMORS style.
- Hong kil-dong's enemy is defeated a third time. HKD has sworn to kill him if he ever sees him again, and when his enemy sees him going  for his sword he tells him that he is right to kill him because he has wasted his life. HKD realizes the man has reformed, and instead of killing him he swipes off his hair and tells him his old life is over. This is MARTIAL CHIVALRY~!


W.K.M. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maria Catherine said...

Hey, very nice! Now I want to watch this. Question: the image you have looks like the Russian DVD cover. Does this mean a Russian version is available on DVD? At the bottom it says, "Cinematography development fund." If they put out a DVD, it could be accessible at least in Russia. Want me to look into it?

W.K.M. said...

Absolutely! For what it's worth, the only reason this film is as available as it is is because people from your neck of the woods remembered seeing it as children and tracked it down.