Director: Lee Doo-yong
Cast: Han Yong-cheol, Bae Su-chun, Kim Mun-ju, Im Eun-joo, Elton Chong, Park Dong-ryong, Cho Chun, Kim Wang-guk, Hwang Jang Lee, Han Tae-Il
Running Time: 88 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The taekwon-action genre is one that’s largely faded into obscurity both in the west and in its native Korea, a combination of lack of availability, and the titles which are available usually being heavily bastardized from their original versions. It felt like somewhat of a minor miracle then when, in 2023, the Korean Film Archive released Returned Single-Legged Man and The Manchurian Tiger on their Korean Classic Films YouTube channel as part of a retrospective of director Lee Doo-yong. Uncut, in their original language with English subtitles, and presented in HD, it marked the first time for any title from the taekwon-action genre to receive such treatment, and was probably thanks to Doo-yong going on to helm more well-known classics like The Last Witness and The Hut in the 1980’s.
While most of us resigned ourselves to the fact it was unlikely we’d see more entries from the world of taekwon-action receive the same treatment, after the passing of Doo-yong in January 2024, the Archive released one more dose of takewon-action in the form of Returned a Single-Legged Man 2. A thematic sequel rather than a direct continuation, RaSLM2 (as I’ll refer to it from here on in) was one of 6 productions Doo-yong made with his leading man Han Yong-cheol in 1974. Discovered by Doo-yong through an audition aimed at finding a star to headline a new kind of action movie, one which emphasised taekwondo kicks over swordplay and gun slinging, together the pair created what became known as taekwon-action with the release of The Manchurian Tiger.
Hopefully it’ll mean at some point we’ll also get to see Left Foot of Wrath, Bridge of Death, and The Betrayer get the same treatment, but as the 3rd of Doo-yong and Yong-cheol’s collaborations to become readily available, RaSLM2 comes with a welcome sense of familiarity. Cranking out 6 movies within a year saw the pair work with the same cast and crews each time and dealt with similar themes – we get Yong-cheol as the stranger with a mysterious past, Bae Su-chun (Lonely Star of Osaka, The Boss of Kowloon) as the villainous Japanese, and Kim Mun-ju (Action Monk, Gallant Man) as the character who may or may not have ulterior motives.
Where Doo-yong breaks from tradition this time around is with the inclusion of a female character who’s also a proficient fighter, played by Im Eun-joo (who in English prints would be billed as Pearl Lin) in her screen debut. A proficient screen fighter who’d go onto feature in the likes of Four Iron Men, The Deadly Kick, and the Korea shot Jackie Chan flick Dragon Fist, RaSLM2 offers the first chance to see her unleash when she’s harassed in the park by a group of rowdy youths led by a young Elton Chong. Yong-cheol plays a mandu chef at the restaurant the orphaned Eun-joo and her kid brother live and work at, and in return he gets free board, providing a cover for the real reason he’s in town. As per standard for these Manchuria westerns, missing gold is involved, and it turns out he’s not the only one who’s after it, with the Japanese also looking to sniff it out. Naturally, lots of kicking ensues.
For those who’s first exposure to Korea’s taekwon-action genre was through the English dubbed, Asso Asia distributed versions (which will probably translate to all of us), there are plenty of familiar faces to be found in all Doo-yong and Yong-cheol’s collaborations. As usual here Park Dong-ryong (Wild Panther, Enter the Game of Death), Cho Chun (Eagle vs. Silver Fox, Mortal Battle), and Kim Wang-guk (My Name Called Bruce, Kill the Shogun) play the trio of lackeys under Su-chun’s Japanese gangster, and are given plenty of opportunities to be get in on the action. Yong-cheol’s confident swagger in many ways feels like it predates Ma Dong-seok’s similar style in contemporary Korean cinema, none more so than when he walks into a room with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and calls out each one of them to take a crack at him with the expected results.
Realising Yong-cheol’s left foot is too formidable for them, Su-chun eventually resorts to calling in the ‘Three Brothers of Osaka’, which is worth the price of admission since one of them is played by Hwang Jang Lee in his first significant action role. Never mind that it’s one that sees him sporting an admittedly goofy looking cape. The legendary boot master, who’d go on to cement his status 2 years later by playing the Silver Fox in The Secret Rivals, here plays the karate expert of the trio. The other brothers consist of a sword fighting expert played by Kwon Il-soo (The Postman Strikes Back, The Shaolin Drunken Monk) and a judo expert played by Kim Young-in (Quick Man, Osaka Godfather). The inclusion of the trio and their respective styles sees some welcome variety injected into the fight choreography, with Yong-cheol finding himself outmatched when he’s forced to take on all 3 at once.
Unlike the first Returned Single-Legged Man, which leaves audiences scratching their heads as to exactly when Yong-cheol becomes ‘single-legged’, here there’s no room for debate, as his defeat sees his ferocious left leg ruthlessly sliced off at the knee. What follows is the earliest example I’ve seen of the trope where a character loses a leg, then proceeds to train himself to use a fake metal one (a trope which, admittedly, could only exist within the world of martial arts cinema). Predating Sun Chien in the 1978 Shaw Brothers production Crippled Avengers, and the taekwon-action genres own Dragon Lee in Champ Vs. Champ from 1980, here Yong-cheol and Eun-joo are soon getting to work on making a cast iron prosthetic appendage ahead of the expected rematch.
Compared to its predecessors (RaSLM2 would be the 5th of the 6 collaborations to be released in 1974, hitting the screens in October with only A Betrayer coming after it) the thematic sequel offers up some hints of comedy mixed in with the drama and action beats. This is no more apparent than when Yong-cheol heads back into the fray with his iron leg, and every time he delivers the finishing kick it’s accompanied by a spring-loaded sound effect, making for a slightly surreal (but admittedly amusing) experience considering the ferocity of the fight doesn’t abate in the slightest. Yong-cheol still gets a one on one to round things off, taking place on the same picturesque cliff edge seen in the original (although not in the context of the finale), and is noteworthy in that at one point it sees Eun-joo come to the rescue when his prosthetic leg is ripped off, stepping in to continue the fight while he reattaches it.
Indeed while all 6 of the productions that Doo-yong and Yong-cheol worked on in 1974 (and would be the only time they worked together, as Yong-cheol looked for better deals elsewhere once the year concluded) must have been made in quick succession, there’s still a noticeable improvement in the fight choreography as they progress. A benefit of using the same cast each time who got to know each other’s movements and timings, the fights in RaSLM2 are the best I’ve seen out of the 3 titles that are available, complimented by some slight undercranking that serves it purpose to convey the intensity of the exchanges. The fact that we also get the chance to see Yong-cheol face off against Hwang Jang Lee 7 years before their brawl in Buddhist Fist and Tiger Claws is the icing on the cake.
While there’s no denying the interchangeable nature of the productions that Doo-yong and Yong-cheol made together, there’s also no denying that what they created was a winning formula, and it was one that they got a little better at with each successive movie they cranked out. Returned a Single-Legged Man 2 feels like the peak of that formula, with the brazen machismo of the genre (you can’t go wrong with lines like “Are your bones unbreakable!? Is your belly lined with iron!?”) matched perfectly with the ferociousness of the fight scenes. What’s left to ask but for more taekwon-action productions be made available to be enjoyed.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10