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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Tough Guys Files #3: Hwang Jang Lee Part 1

The Korean super kicker, Hwang Jang Lee has long been a fixture of oldschool kung fu movies and the fans that love them. He's easily one of the most popular big screen Asian villains and instantly recognizable due to his amazing kicking skills, his penetrating stare and deliciously evil laugh.

"It's my pleasure to send you both to hell!"--DANCE OF THE DRUNK MANTIS (1979)

Hwang was a true to life Tough Guy in every sense of the word. He is a real martial artist whose status within the martial arts world has attained legendary proportions. Considering the chaotic nature of Asian cinema, and the voluminous number of their movies, a lot of information is out there about the man; some of it reportedly having been exaggerated.

An upcoming documentary entitled THE ANONYMOUS KING is supposed to reveal the truth behind the legend about this fascinating individual whose cult status doesn't seem to have diminished over the years.

Up until the last several years, there had been little to no interest on the Asian front in terms of preserving their cinematic heritage. There are still films being discovered and unearthed, not to mention the 'needle in a haystack' approach to finding out information detailing what went into the making of these fascinating, action packed and often times misunderstood movies.

The career of Hwang Jang Lee is varied and not too far removed from many of his kung fu colleagues. Unlike most all of today's Asian film headliners, many of the big screen kung fu stars from back in the day were real martial artists whose time offscreen often yielded many occurrences that mirrored their onscreen personages.

While there are a fair number of other kickers who are famous in their own right, like Tan Tao Liang and John Liu, Master Hwang is unique in his own inimitable way.

The sheer breadth of kicks he had in his arsenal is staggering. And all the most often used and most bone-crushing examples of lethal leggery are showcased and discussed here in addition to looking over his movies, the lesser talked about titles, and even some that never got completed, or released.

It wasn't all leg work in his movies, though. Hwang also used the Eagle Claw style quite often. It's generally the one he used most of the time, or some other claw form. It also owes much to what is possibly his signature pose--standing on one leg, arms extended, hands in a claw form and his other leg ready to strike.

Hwang Jang Lee had one helluva mean face, too. Even when he smiles, his facial features are saturated with a potent level of guileful villainy. And when he was mad (which was pretty regular), no one possessed such a piercingly evil scowl.

"What makes you think you'll live that long?"--INVINCIBLE ARMOR (1977)

Bearing a persona and natural charisma that rivaled the late Bruce Lee, Korea's ultimate kicking export could pull off spectacular moves that anybody else would require wires and harnesses to do. The man was so popular, he even had his own demonstration video in the early 80s, THE ART OF HIGH IMPACT KICKING. If that weren't enough, in the credits of movies he co-starred in, he was frequently top billed over the star playing the lead protagonist!

Hwang Jang Lee was most famous for his devastating array of kicks. Picking a favorite is a difficult task. It's like deciding which flavor to get at the ice cream shop as there are so many. The same applies with Master Hwang and his lethal leg work.

Spread out over the course of this five part article are 14 of the most oft seen examples of leg combat maneuvers used by Korea's King of Kicks. I am not sure if a technical name exists for all of these, but I have applied my own definition for them just for "kicks", haha.

1. The most popular it seems is Hwang's 'Bicycle Kick'. This punishing, video game worthy instance of chest and sternum crushing foot devastation is often shown in slow motion so we, the audience can soak up every rapid fire motion at the expense of the man receiving the series of blows to his upper regions. Even slowed down, it still looks fast! The term 'Bicycle Kick' has been applied elsewhere and that's what it looks like--Hwang leaps into the air and postures himself like he's riding a bike. His legs and feet do the rest.

"Bastard! Very well... you've chosen to die!"--SECRET RIVALS (1976)
Hwang was born December 13th, 1944 in Osaka Japan. At age 14 he moved back to South Korea with his parents where he learned the powerful kicking art of Taekwondo. Excelling in this style, Hwang eventually was assigned to train the national army which was stationed in Vietnam at the time. It was at this point in his life that one of the more widely circulated stories of Hwang's life was passed around.

Allegedly, while training the troops in Vietnam, Hwang was challenged to a fight by an eager Vietnamese knife fighter. As the story goes, an unarmed Hwang accidentally killed the man with a swift kick to the noggin; presumably in a similar fashion to Sun Chien putting Yang Hsiung to sleep (permanently) in INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN (1978).

Around 1975, Hwang began appearing in movies where he would put his amazing flexibility and powerful leg work to good use.

After several obscure Korean action films, Hwang got a burst of recognition after appearing as the lead villain in the modestly successful fan favorite, THE SECRET RIVALS in 1976.

This Korea lensed production was a departure from other kung fu pictures of the day; mainly in that it showcased kicking styles. I can't recall another film before it that highlighted various kicks to the extent of THE SECRET RIVALS. Considering Hwang Jang Lee specialized in Taekwondo, the leg-centric choreography suited him perfectly.

Wearing a white wig and sporting white facial hair, Hwang played Silver Fox, a name that came to be closely associated with the Korean kicking sensation.
The inclusion of a white haired villain was popularized in Liu Chia Liang's EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1977), a film that was released in early 1977, yet began shooting sometime in the latter part of 1975. In that film, Lo Lieh made the iconic Pai Mei, Priest White Brows, a household name; the color white symbolizing 'death' in Asia. And where kung fu movies were concerned, white often signified near superhuman strength.

While Hwang essayed a different white haired villain, the character of Pai Mei was also seen in Chang Cheh's THE SHAOLIN AVENGERS (1976); which was released the same day as THE SECRET RIVALS in June of 1976.

With the huge box office receipts incurred via EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN, and the equally fan favorable appearance of Lo Lieh as Pai Mei, Hwang was often referred to as the White haired 'Silver Fox' by his fans. Some of the credits in his movies even refer to him as such whether he was playing a white haired villain or not. Hwang's vastly impressive kicking abilities in THE SECRET RIVALS no doubt added immeasurably to the near mythic status his career would seize upon in the coming years.

"You are buuullllshittiiiinnng! I must teach you to watch what you say in the future!"--DRAGON'S CLAWS (1979)

Master Hwang returned in a sequel, SECRET RIVALS 2 (1977), where he played the Gold Fox, the twin brother of the previous pictures Silver Fox. Fellow super kicker, John Liu reprised his role, but Don Wong Tao did not return, instead former Shaw star Tino Wong took his place.

More white haired villain roles followed for the busy actor/martial artist. Such films as HERO OF THE WILD starring Chen Sing, the Qing Dynasty thriller SNUFF BOTTLE CONNECTION and the heavy independent classic, INVINCIBLE ARMOR (all 1977) all feature Korea's deadliest export donning a thick mane of white hair.

The latter film, INVINCIBLE ARMOR, heavily replicated the Pai Mei character from Shaw's EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN. The 1983 Filmark production of RAGING MASTER'S TIGER CRANE directed by the likely pseudonymous Sammy Lee is another.

"Female blood may get rid of tricks!"--DEMON STRIKE (1979)

Hwang would again sport a head full of white follicles in two absolutely absurd movies; the near worthless, if overbearingly wacky DEMON STRIKE and Joseph Kuo's 36 DEADLY STYLES (both 1979); the former is especially disappointing in that it has a great cast. Both Liang Chia Jen and Pai Piao star in what amounts to a chintzy, El Cheapo quickie capitalizing on a similar film in production at Shaw Brothers at the time under the guidance of Kuei Chi Hung; that film being KILLER CONSTABLE (1980).

DEMON STRIKE rips off that story almost scene by scene (even down to the sword Chen Kuan Tai uses in the Shaw picture!) and adds a Mao Shan magical element to the storyline including voodoo dolls and palm emitting laser beams fired into women's vaginal regions.

All sources list this as a 1979 production, but the choreography and wirework look like it could have possibly been made a few years later.

The latter loser (36 DS) showcases some of the worst wigs ever seen in any movie (check out the raggedy mop on Bolo Yeung's head) as well as being a lazily put together film by noted indy director, Joseph Kuo. I remember little of the film, but remember those stupid wigs very well.

2. Hwang's 'Flying Triple Kick' is fairly simple; unless you're on the receiving end. This is basically seen when Hwang becomes enraged; he flies through the air and hammers his opponent with a rapid fire exchange of three kicks. Similar to the 'Bicycle Kick', this series of blows instead has the legs extended, but operates in much the same fashion. The difference is mostly in the targeted areas. It's often the pectoral regions or even the face.

"I can give you a one way ticket to hell."--TOWER OF DEATH (1981)

Bad hair was a mainstay in HK cinema and Hwang would wear some bewilderingly sloppy hair pieces in other movies like the three years in the making, semi offensive Bruceploitation movie TOWER OF DEATH (which bears the distinction of having Hwang responsible for the death of Bruce Lee!!! [1981]) and the hilarious patchwork crapola, NINJA TERMINATOR (1985) helmed by crap film king, Godfrey Ho. In both these movies, Hwang sported wigs that gave him an effeminate appearance with the latter title particularly embarrassing for the subject of this article in his blonde hair piece.

"Well, boy, you've got lots of guts. And I shall kill you later, too!"--SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978)

1978 was a turning point for the formidable fighter. Former Shaw Brothers executive, Ng See Yuen had founded Seasonal Films in 1976 forming the most successful independent company during the Shaw Brothers era of theatrical dominance. Having already used Hwang Jang Lee to great success in the kicking showcase, THE SECRET RIVALS, Ng wanted him for the Hong Kong production, SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978).

While the main star was then box office poison, Jackie Chan, Hwang Jang Lee rips the screen to shreds as Eagle Claw stylist, Master Shang. Personally, I find this influential box office smash a mediocre affair and highly overrated. Still, Hwang makes it worthwhile in this movie that formally introduced kung fu comedy to the masses. Sadly, and just like in many of Hwang's movies, you only ever see him sporadically aside from the opening and towards the end.

"You impertinent young fool! I promise you... I shall have your teeth now!"--SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978)

For years it's been widely reported that Chan and Hwang didn't get along during the shoot. This story is given weight by Chan getting one of his teeth knocked out during the final fight by one of Hwang's devastating kicks. It's made all the more ironic in that Master Shang tells Chan's character he's about to take his teeth!

"What's that supposed to be... kung fu? Who taught you that load of shit?!"--DRUNKEN MASTER (1978)

The incident in SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW was one of two times the Korean bootmaster was reported to have injured Jackie Chan. The second time was on the Seasonal follow up, the even bigger box office blockbuster, DRUNK MONKEY IN THE TIGER'S EYE (1978) aka DRUNKEN MASTER. Here, a well placed kick to the head reportedly sent Jackie Chan to the hospital.

If one puts Hwang's two Chan flicks into context, he doesn't come off as imposing as he does in so many of his other movies; in relation to his wide array of kicks.

The final fight in SNAKE is unusually short for a HK picture. Hwang's kicks are more sporadic spread evenly with hand to hand combat. And while the end fight in DRUNKEN MASTER is longer and better, Hwang doesn't unleash his merciless kicking canon as he does in his other movies.

Both films have Chan in control intermittently. One gets the impression egos may have been rearing their heads here and Chan wasn't about to be shown up in his own movies.

3. Things go great in three's and in Master Hwang's case, three is a pulverizing number. The 'Hurricane Kick Array' is seen when Hwang unleashes a series of kicks on two to three adversaries. They are either lined up one behind the other, or situated in a triangle formation. Either way, they all feel the Force flowing through them from the power of Hwang's foot to their faces. Depending on the formation of the receivers, the kicks are all from a single leg. For a triangle formation, the furious flurry comes from both legs.


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