AKA: The Korean Connection
Director: Lee Doo-yong
Cast: Han Yong-cheol, Kwan Yung-moon, Jeong Sonyeo, Lee So-yeong, Kim Mun-ju, Nam Chung-il, Bae Su-chun, Kwon Il-soo, Cho Chun, Elton Chong, Hwang Jang Lee, Nam Chung-il, Lim Hae-lim, Kim Ki-bum
Duration: 88 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
Being a fan of Korean martial arts production, spanning from the 1960s through the 1990s, has never been a particularly rewarding endeavor. Want to check out one of the 90s titles? The only option available is to hunt down a rare home VHS release that definitely won’t come with English subtitles (let alone sourcing a VHS player!). Curious to see what the 70s and 80s had to offer? Chances are you’ll end up watching a horribly re-edited, cut and dubbed Atrocity in an entirely different story Atrocity that Godfrey Ho bought the international distribution rights to and modified to fit what he believes Western audiences liked at the time. What about the 60s? Forget it, if you haven’t seen it in a Korean theater at the time of its release, chances are you’ll never see it.
One such 70’s title that I had the opportunity to try out many years ago was The Korean connection. Released on DVD in the US by Pathfinder Entertainment in 2003, it was such a dark (literally, not plot-wise) incomprehensible mess that I was sure it didn’t have to be the original release. In many ways, I probably have that DVD to thank for starting my journey of uncovering the truth behind many of the so-called Korean kung-fu movies available in the west. It turned out that his title was not The Korean connection at all, with the real one being the grammatically challenged One-legged man returned. A 1974 production, the Pathfinder DVD was 10 minutes missing by its 85-minute runtime, it had been re-edited into an entirely different story and sounded like it was voiced by a group of soft-spoken American college students.
Korean Film Archive released One-legged man returned on VOD for a short while in 2011 without English subtitles, but it would take until 2022 for it to become available on their Korean Classic Films YouTube channel not only with English subtitles, but also presented in HD for the first time. For those who want to check it out, the video is linked at the end of this review. The 3rd of the 6 films that director Lee Doo-yong, star Han Yong-cheol and choreographer Kwan Yung-moon’s Iron Triangle would make in 1974, following The Manchurian tiger AND Bridge of Deathwould be One-legged man returned which solidified Yong-cheol’s action star status with Korean audiences (so much so that it spawned a thematic sequel, released less than 3 months later!).
Like all their collaborations, Doo-yong and co. remains in the territory of “West Manchuria”, with this time Yong-cheol playing an aimless drifter who chooses to drown his sorrows in the bottom of a bottle of soju. Orphaned as a child, Yong-cheol was raised by a feared gangster, but when he falls in love with a wealthy girl, his brother tells him the only way to approve of their relationship is to turn away from the gangster. lifestyle in which he grew up. Being a romantic boy, Yong-cheol chooses love, and after a severe beating his adoptee further agrees to let him leave her side, but only if he does one last job: intercepting a well-guarded masked courier carrying a stash of cash and steals it.
Yong-cheol makes the courier’s job easier by knocking him out, however when the accompanying Japanese couple choose to kill the courier rather than let him live by removing the mask Yong-cheol is horrified to discover that it is his future brother-in-law. -law. Falling into despair, she becomes an alcoholic recluse, but after discovering that her ex-boyfriend has been forced to marry a Japanese sadist against her will, he decides to pull himself together and embark on a rescue mission to bring her back.
One-legged man returned brings a familiar list of faces (and places) from Doo-yong’s previous productions, with Bae Su-chun (Miss, please be patient, Female martial arts) returned as a Japanese villain, and Kim Mun-ju (Gallant man, Tarzan in Korea) also returning, this time as a heavy for hire. However, we also get a first look at many of the familiar faces who will continue to become pillars of the genre over the next 10 years. The likes of Kwon Il-soo (The postman strikes again, Deadly football), Cho Chun (Eagle versus silver fox, Deadly roulette), Elton Chong (Invincible obsessed fighter, Magnificent natural punch), and perhaps the most notable – Hwang Jang Lee (Tiger over the wall, Dragon claws), here in his screen debut – everyone makes welcome appearances and has brief moments to strut their stuff.
Unlike The Manchurian tigerthis time the choreographer Kwan Yung-moon (My young aunt, Zombie Kung Fu) does double duty by also appearing on camera, playing a flute playing drifter who can land a mediocre kick (not to mention, his flute doubles as a handy club with which to beat assailants). He is helped in the choreography by Nam Chung-il (Golden Dragon, Silver Serpent, Buddhist fist and tiger claws) who also has a minor role and is instantly recognizable as one of the lackeys who populate the backdrop of many Korean kung-fu films. Despite how quickly these productions must have been shot considering they made 6 of them in 1974 alone, the choreography here is considerably superior The Manchurian tiger.
Perhaps because everyone has gotten to grips with working together in such a short amount of time, there’s a noticeable increase in speed and complexity, with a satisfying number of ones (or twos) against many melees flowing well, accompanied by kicks being dash left right and center. There’s also the inclusion of stunts, with a fighter particularly fond of somersaulting, combined with some nice reaction drops to add impact to the strikes. One of the most iconic scenes deserves inclusion in any discussion of 1970s martial arts films, which sees Yong-cheol arriving at a remote bridge spanning a ravine. Dressed all in black like one of the first The man from nowhere, proceeds to cross while facing a small army of attackers led by Hwang Jang Lee, and doesn’t even bother to put down the bag he’s holding. For scenes of pure naughtiness, sequence is very important regardless of genre.
The opportunity to have 3 legends of kung-fu cinema in the guise of Han Yong-cheol, Kwan Yung-moon and Hwang Jang Lee share the screen is certainly not wasted, even if they had no idea of their status at the time future. Yung-moon can trade kicks with both Yong-cheol and Jang Lee (which, despite being shorter, is much more fun than their fight in Blood child 8 years later), while Yong-cheol looks close to realizing his full potential as a cinematic fighter. In one scene he takes on a room full of attackers with only his kicks since his hands are tied behind his back, 16 years before Donnie Yen performed a similar fight in Tiger Cage II (and that was only against one person, although admittedly that person was Michael Woods). It’s a scene that reflects the boot-work-focused choreography of Korea at the time, arguably in advance of the Hong Kong basher style that still dominated the first half of the 1970s.
There is a rather large elephant in the room, as after the scene where Yong-cheol has his hands tied behind his back, he is punished by the Japanese who proceed to punch his leg so he can no longer use it (a character he even says he “will never be able to use that leg again”). I assumed this scene was the origin of the “One-Legged Man” the title refers to, however shortly after I reach the finale, and Yong-cheol proceeds to kick seven bells at everyone with both legs like nothing the kind had happened. Perhaps it was due to a rushed production schedule, but still, it feels a little strange to overlook a plot point that directly relates to the film’s title! Thankfully for taekwon action fans this will be a minor quibble, and considering I consider myself one of them, I’m willing to let it go. A classic of the genre, One-legged man returned it’s worth a look.
Rating by Paul Bramhall: 7.5/10