A few weeks ago, I ordered a few films by director Kim Shi-hyeon that I had found on a DVD site based in Hong Kong. These films are not available on DVD in Korea and I thought it would be a good chance to learn about a stage of Korean film history that I know woefully little about– The Hong Kong co-productions and especially the action ‘kung-fu’ films. In the mid-late seventies, Hong Kong cinema was king and enjoying popularity around the world. Korea was also taken with the action films coming out of its southern neighbor. Movies like Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master were very influential and are still remembered fondly–In fact, Drunken Master 2 was on television earlier today (no, I didn’t watch it). Running into trouble with the government, master director Shin Sang-ok relocated his company, Shin Productions, to Hong Kong and many other directors and actors saw the chance to work in Hong Kong. Dozens of films were made of varying quality and stars were born like the Bruce Lee look-alike Geo Ryong aka Dragon Bruce Lee aka Moon Geo-ryong. Geo Ryong gained quite a bit of fame and his career is easy to track. But the fact that these films and the actors in them are listed under so many different names, researching them is quite a chore.
The DVDs I bought are dubbed in English, no sign of the orginial language and, worse, no sign of the original credits. One of the movies I bought called itself Angry Dragon–also starring Geo Ryong and directed by Kim Shi-hyeon. However, a search through the Korean Film Database revealed no such title. Fortunately, there are ways of tracking it down — reviewing stills and posters is invaluable. I learned along the way that Angry Dragon was also called in Hong Kong The Angry Man vs the Five Brothers, Five Brothers and, is listed under the English title Five Disciples in the Korean Film Database. Oddly, the original poster for this movie does list an English title among the Korean and Chinese characters. It was to be called The Five Brothers. I do not know why the title was not used consistently.
A bigger problem comes when trying to understand the credits to these movies. And, for the most part, it is a hopeless task. Random English names are assigned in the credits. I did learn a few things. Popular 80s actor Lee Dae-geun went at some point under the name Master Lee! Veteran actors Nam Goong-hoon and Shin Il-ryong in some Honk Kong films were listed as James Nam and Shin I-lung respectively. These were easy to figure out because I have seen enough of the actors to recognize them. But most I have no clue. In Fight at Hong Kong Ranch (KMDB name… the DVD I ordered from Hong Kong calls it Golden Dragon, Silver Snake) the credits include Dragon Lee, Johnnie Chan (!) and Edward Lee. Who? I have no idea. Maybe given time I could eventually sort everything out, but I doubt it. Johnnie Chan obviously was playing the Jackie Chan clone, but what was his real name. I don’t even know if he was Korean or from Hong Kong. Edward Lee? I have no idea. The actor names are not paired with a character so I do not know who played whom. The KMDB is no help in this matter. It lists five names associated with this movie and three of them have the family name Lee. Tracking down images of the actors would tell me who they played, but it would not help with the English names that comprise the credits.
So how was Fight at Hong Kong Ranch? Well, I have to admit I enjoyed it. Oh–the translation of the original dialogue and the dubbing are absolutely horrible- the English voices in no way match the characters and I had the impression that there was probably a limite number of voice actors available…some people sound remarkably similar. Also, the two main actors are not even attempting to disguise the fact that they are imitations of two much better known martial artists. The Jackie Chan mimic is dressed to look like the main character in Drunken Master and even given his own crazy old man to teach him Kung Fu. Dragon Lee/Geo Ryong bears more than a passing resemblance to Bruce Lee and demonstrates some excellent martial arts skills but the yellow track suit might have been a little too much. The whole film could come across as just a cheesy, unintentional parody of the genre. However, for some reason it works and there are times that both of the main actors look exactly like the people they are imitating and you forget you are not watching the real thing.
The plot was simple…very, very simple. Thugs, running a protection racket, attempt to force a nearby ranch owner to sell and murder a charasmatic young man who attempts to organize the local merchants to resist the gangsters. The dead man’s brother comes to town out for revenge and winds up getting a job at the ranch. Meanwhile, the milkman who also works on the ranch, meets a rickshaw driver who promises to teach him how to fight in order to protect himself and the ranch owners from the criminals. The movie has lots of action–some of it quite bizarre. Eggs, baseballs, cordless drills and cats are used as weapons. There are evil motor cycle gangs, pool-side parties and a damsal in distress. Was there deep meaning? No. But was there fun? Yes.
After watching this film, I understand a little more why the genre was popular and I look forward to seeing the other two I bought… but not just yet. I have the feeling that my opinion might change if I watch too many kung-fu films at one time. They are fun, though…