AKA: Sting of the Dragon Masters
Director: Huang Feng
Cast: Jhoon Rhee, Angela Mao, Anne Winston, Kenji Kazuma, Carter Wong, Wang In Sik, Sammo Hung, Andre Morgan, Chin Yuet Sang, Gam Kei Chu, Chan Chuen, Wilson Tong, Billy Chan, Hsu Hsia, Lam Ching Ying
Running Time: 95 min.
By Paul Bramhall
If there was ever a decade when taekwondo had its chance to shine in Hong Kong action cinema, then it was the 1970’s. Following Bruce Lee’s untimely passing both Golden Harvest boss Raymond Chow and Seasonal Films founder Ng See Yuen frequently sought out taekwondo practitioners to fill the void that Lee left behind with varying degrees of success. However the origins of their fascination with taekwondo arguably started with Bruce Lee himself, who in 1972 convinced Chow to green light a production for his Korean friend Jhoon Rhee, a taekwondo teacher based in the States who would come to be considered the father of taekwondo in America. That production became When Taekwondo Strikes, and sadly Bruce would pass away shortly before the finished product would arrive on Hong Kong cinema screens in September of 1973.
The Little Dragon’s insistence that Rhee could be a legitimate leading martial arts star is certainly an interesting take, since Rhee was already 41 when he’d make his cinematic debut, and after the release of When Taekwondo Strikes he’d only go on to appear in 1 other production (a supporting role in 1981’s The Return of the Great Fighter, which was directed by Miami Connection’s Park Woo-sang). However as his one and only time in the lead, Rhee’s influence is undeniable. He contributed to the story, which unusually for Hong Kong cinema led to tales which focused on Koreans being oppressed by the Japanese becoming just as popular as those which focused on the Chinese being oppressed (although notably it wasn’t the first, with the previous years The Crush covering similar territory).
Rhee also brought along one of his students from America to take on a prominent supporting role in the form of Ann Winton, heralding one of the few times in the kung-fu genre when a gweilo has been cast as one of the good guys, versus the standard villain roles that were usually reserved for foreigners. The fact that Winton was female only shows how ahead of his time Rhee was in his championing of martial arts talent in front of the camera, pre-dating the era of Cynthia Rothrock, Sophie Crawford, and Kim Maree Penn by over a decade.
The production itself though is firmly steeped in the early 70’s Golden Harvest style, with the studio bringing in their leading lady Angela Mao in what’s effectively a co-lead role (some may argue she even is the lead), and their up-and-coming leading man Carter Wong in a significant supporting role. Mao and Wong would frequently appear onscreen together in their early outings (see also Hapkido, Back Alley Princess, The Opium Trail, and The Tournament), so it’s understandable that Raymond Chow didn’t want to take a gamble on placing the whole of When Taekwondo Strikes’ success on Rhee’s shoulders. Chow also went with the safe option by placing Wong Fung in the directors chair, an actor turned director who worked almost exclusively with Golden Harvest and Angela Mao throughout the 70’s, debuting with 1971’s The Angry River and retiring after 1978’s The Legendary Strike.
It would prove to be a wise choice to bring onboard such established talent both in front and behind the camera, because as much as Bruce Lee may have wanted it to be the Jhoon Rhee show (in the days leading up to his death he was still pushing for Rhee to be billed as the top star!), the fact is he’s not exactly leading man material. Rhee’s life is filled with an impressive list of achievements, however being a thespian definitely isn’t one of them, with his receding hairline and wooden performance often making his screen time somewhat painful viewing. The fact that he’s the only cast member who insists on finding an excuse to go shirtless at any given opportunity doesn’t help, and this is in a movie where the Japanese villains garb involves plenty of underwear flashing.
In another example of When Taekwondo Strikes being ahead of its time, Rhee’s physical performance also serves as an example of martial arts mastery offscreen not necessarily translating to having a screen fighting pedigree onscreen (a trope which became particularly prominent 20 years later, when real life kickboxing champions would come to dominate the DTV action market). The action choreography is handled by Sammo Hung (who like in so many 70’s Golden Harvest productions, also turns up as a villain) and Shaw Brothers stalwart Chan Chuen, who also worked together on the action for the previous years The Devil’s Treasure and End of the Wicked Tigers. For a taekwondo showcase Rhee doesn’t really impress, although this could well be because the era in which he studied during the 40’s and 50’s was when the style was still much closer to karate, rather than the kick-heavy style it’d take on during the 80’s.
It’s Angela Mao who fares the strongest on the action front, who at this point was working under the action choreography of Sammo Hung for the 5th time, and had studied Hapkido under both Hwang In-shik and Ji Han-jae. Mao displays her usual ferocity in the fight scenes, which at this point where in that transitionary phase somewhere between the punch and block nature of bashers, and the more intricate choreography that’d come later in the decade. She gets a pair of lengthy one on ones against Chin Yuet-Sang (Lion Vs Lion, Hocus Pocus) and Sammo Hung, and in the finale goes up against Hwang In-shik (The Skyhawk, Stoner). In one of the productions more unintentionally funny moments, once the shackled Rhee breaks free during the finale, he gives Mao a light flying kick to knock her out of the way during her fight with In-shik, announcing that things should be settled Korean versus Korean. Well, at least he wasn’t being sexist!
It would also be a crime not to mention Ann Winton, who gets a handful of scenes to show off her moves, and looking impressively sharp for the era When Taekwondo Strikes was made. Likely a combination of her height, and having a background in ballet as well as taekwondo (Michelle Yeoh, Moon Lee, and Cynthia Khan also came from dance backgrounds, so it’s clearly beneficial for screen fighting), it’s a shame she’d only go on to appear in one other production (the Bruceploitation movie Super Dragon the following year) as she clearly had potential. Tragically her life would be cut short in 1982 when she was murdered by her husband.
Despite the varied quality of the action, one aspect of When Taekwondo Strikes that’s inescapable is the overall tone. Made at a time when Golden Harvest seemed to favour incorporating their kung-fu into narratives which tended to be quite dramatic and straight faced, there’s an overwhelming feeling that the story is taking itself a little too seriously. What’s worse is that many of the more dramatic moments are placed on Rhee to pull off, and watching his attempts to emote aren’t exactly convincing to say the least, with a narrative that attempts to somewhat awkwardly combine fighting for Korean independence with a devoutly Christian message of peace. Is When Taekwondo Strikes a Christian kung-fu movie? Arguably yes, although the establishment of taekwondo in the States is inextricably linked to the Korean Christian cult of the Unification Church, so that’s perhaps not a surprise (and is worth a whole separate feature!).
For those who are fans of the early 70’s Golden Harvest style then there’ll undoubtably be something to enjoy in When Taekwondo Strikes, although looking at the production which it has most in common with, 1972’s Hapkido, it’s hard not to agree that the earlier effort is the superior movie. Still, for any fan of kung-fu cinema the chance to see Jhoon Rhee and Ann Winton in their most significant roles, backed up by the likes of Angela Mao, Carter Wong, Sammo Hung, Hwang In-shik, and Ken Kazama (Karate from Shaolin Temple, The Street Fighter), is one that shouldn’t be missed. Will you likely watch it again? Probably not, but without When Taekwondo Strikes, we may never have gotten the likes of The Secret Rivals and Tiger of Northland later in the decade, and for that it’s an important piece of kung-fu cinema history.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5.5/10