Director: Lee Doo Yong
Cast: Han Yong-cheol, Kim Mun-ju, Bae Su-chun, Woo Yeon-jeong, Chang Il-sik, Park Dong-ryong, Sim Sang Chun, Gang Dong-gyu, Choe Sung-kwan
Duration: 95 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
Looking back at the evolution of martial arts cinema over the years, there’s no question that it was the 1970s when the genre evolved at such a pace that, if you stack a production from 1970 and the 1979, there seems to be more than just 10 years between them. From the complexity and style of the choreography, to the faces behind and in front of the camera, each year can be considered significant in its own way. 1974 was no different. In Hong Kong director Chang Cheh kicked off his Shaolin Cycle with the release of Heroes twowhile in Japan Sonny Chiba unleashed Takuma Tsurugi to the world with The street fighter. One country that often gets overlooked when discussing the evolution of martial arts cinema though is Korea, and in the same year we also get what can be considered the first martial arts film based on taekwondo in the form of The Manchurian tiger.
A whole 2 years before Hong Kong producer Ng See-Yuen realized the potential of taekwondo’s aesthetically pleasing kicking repertoire by introducing Hwang Jang Lee and John Liu to the world through Secret Rivals, Korea was already churning out its own brand of taekwondo-based action. For a moment it sounded like Korean peninsula would have its own version of Shaw Brothers studios Iron Triangle, with director Lee Doo-yong, star Han Yong-cheol and choreographer Kwan Yung-moon, however ultimately their collaborations would prove to be the spark rather than the flame lasting. Together the trio would work together 6 times in 1974, also realizing One-legged man returned and his retinue, A traitor, Left foot of wrath AND Bridge of Deathbefore going their separate ways.
Doo-yong was already an established director in 1974, and unlike, shall we say, the Hong Kong film industry at the time, he not only specialized in action cinema, he also directed major Korean classics such as The last witness AND The Hut in 1980. For fans of martial arts cinema, while I’m sure that would not be his preference, he is most likely known as the guy who directed the 1976 film Visitor of Americathe film that was then bastardized and made into Bruce Lee fights from the grave (notably re-teamed with movie star, Jun Chong, alongside Sam Jones and Linda Blair in 1988 Silent killers after emigrating to the United States). Kwan Yung-moon, on the other hand, began appearing in front of the camera more and more, recording memorable performances in Hong Kong productions such as Shaolin texture, The bootyAND Zombie Kung Fuearning the affectionate label of “The Mad Korean” for his high-energy performances.
While all three would eventually emigrate to the United States, it was Yong-cheol who made the leap first, and he also left the film industry as a result. In addition to returning briefly in 1981 to do Yong Ho’s cousins AND My name is Twin Legs (dubbed, re-edited and renamed in the West by Godfrey Ho’s Asso Asia group for Buddhist fist and tiger claws AND Thunderkick tiger strike respectively, which ironically makes them the 2 most accessible titles in Yong-cheol’s filmography), would leave only 12 films to his legacy. The good news is that they are all protagonists, and Yong-cheol’s appeal as an action protagonist is obvious. While Korea would propel many taekwondo pros into lead roles in later years regardless of acting ability or screen presence (Casanova Wong, Dragon Lee, Elton Chong, etc.), Yong-cheol looks and acts like hero.
It is said that when Dong-yoo was auditioning for the lead role of The Manchurian tiger, Hwang Jang Lee also showed up, however it was Yong-cheol who got the role over him as he had the combination of screen presence and taekwondo talent. Korean audiences at the time took to Yong-cheol immediately, and by the mid-1970s it was commonly said that “Hong Kong has the one-armed boxer (Jimmy Wang Yu), Japan has the blind swordsman (Shinatro Katsu) and Korea has the one-legged man!” As a side note while Hwang Jang Lee spent the era as an unnamed lackey getting Yong-cheol’s kicks in the likes of One-legged man returned (released in the US as The Korean connection), when 1981 rolled around, the pair would co-star alongside each other in Buddhist fist and tiger clawseffectively marking a passage of the torch from one to the other.
The Manchurian tiger ushered in what became known as the “Manchuria western”, a riff on the western genre that came out of Hollywood at the time. Swapping the American Wild West for the dusty plains of Manchuria, the tales usually involved Korean independence fighters involved in plots involving the Chinese and Japanese who populated the now dissolved territory comprising parts of Korea, China, Mongolia and Russia. Swapping guns for taekwondo kicks, the combination proved to be a recipe for success (and would most recently be reinvented in 2008 The good, the bad, the weird), and in many ways came to represent the fact that Korean action films could stand on their own, without having to rely on Hong Kong or Taiwanese co-productions.
Clearly riff on a fistful of dollars, the plot stars Yong-cheol as an unnamed cigar-smoking drifter who is willing to offer his impressive fighting skills to the highest bidder. After a Chinese restaurant owner, played by Kim Mun-ju (Gallant man, Tarzan in Korea), requests his services to recover a stash of gold which he claims was stolen by a Japanese bar owner, played by Bae Su-chun (Miss, please be patient, Female martial arts). Initially playing both sides against each other to raise the prince of her, the plot thickens when a woman enters the film played by Woo Yeon-jeong (The bloody wind, Dragon Tamers), which reveals that Mun-ju and Su-chun were in cahoots. Claiming that he stole the gold by killing his father, who intended to use it to fund Korean independence efforts, he also enlists Yong-cheol’s help in revenge, but ends up being just another pawn to fill his pockets. pockets?
Of course the plot is just a frame for Yong-cheol to strut his stuff and show off his boot job, and to that end it serves its purpose admirably. While Yung-moon’s choreography is still imbued with the punch and block style of the era, every time Yong-cheol unleashes his kicks the choreography goes up a notch, and for Korean kung-fu fans there are many familiar faces on the receiving end of them. Chang Il-sik (Northern Tiger, Shaolin dragon) is especially entertaining as a silk-shirted, hooded knife expert, walking around with a belt full of knives as if it were normal everyday attire. Dong Ryong Park (Wild Panther, Deadly football) and Sim Sang Chun (Emperor of the Underworld, Enter the game of death) are also on board as lackeys, who would go on to have more prominent roles as the so-called “action taekwon” genre began to gain popularity.
The Manchurian tiger it’s not only a major film in reinventing the Korean action genre, it’s also entertaining, made by a director who valued a decent plot and characters as much as ensuring that action beats deliver when they hit. Certainly some parts are a bit sketchy, like in almost every scene you can see the characters breathing whether they are indoors or out, indicating that it was probably filmed in the middle of winter, and pay attention to the clear conductor of horses visible in the background of a shot during the final fight scene. However, these are minor gripes in what is a lean action film, which is part of a genre that no longer exists in the Korean film industry today, so it should be appreciated all the more.
Finally, while I don’t usually discuss specific releases when it comes to reviews, especially as of this writing in 2023, when we have a deluge of physical media and streaming content to choose from, for The Manchurian tiger I’ll make an exception. Over the years, the Korean Film Archive has done an amazing job releasing Korean classics on Blu-ray (including Doo-yong’s film The last witness AND The Hut), however we haven’t yet seen a single martial arts title in their list. With the recently announced 2023 release schedule, it’s confirmed this year will be the same, however, as perhaps the next best option, a new HD master complete with English subtitles was released for free on their Korean YouTube channel in March Classic Film (probably using the same master that was created for a Han Yong-cheol Film Festival, KOFA screened in 2020 – what I would have given to be able to participate!). The full movie is linked below.
Paul Bramhall’s assessment: 8/10