Hong Kil Dong (1986)

I've reviewed a lot of kung fu movies over the years (the A-to-Z list is littered with them), but I've never seen anything Korean in this genre before, so let's see if we can add one to the list. The unique thing about this movie is that it's not from cultured, vibrant South Korea, but from those nutty Norks across the DMZ with their turnip stew and their totalitarian xenophobia. Originally only to be seen outside of the peninsula in the dingy cinderblock cinemas of the more DPRK-friendly nations of the Warsaw Pact, it's now widely available to anyone with an internet connection and a rudimentary knowledge of Google (as in: me!).

No time to waste, let's get into it. We open in 1500s feudal Korea, where we meet five-year old Kil Dong, a scampy little kid with long braided hair and horrible thespian skills. Kil Dong's mother is a lower-class homely concubine and a his father is a good-natured, if philandering, Nobleman in the King's court.

I hate child actors, with good reason.

The Nobleman's scheming first wife (the "legal one") tries to have Kil Dong and his mom killed when she can't bear the sight of them anymore. Ambushed along a road by a gang of hired thugs, mom and son are rescued by a kindly old man with a Santa Claus beard and a gnarled walking stick, who just so happens to have otherworldly kung-fu skills. There has not been a kung fu movie made in fifty years that did not have an old Kung Fu Master with flowing white Gandalf robes and beard, it's one of the Standard Cliches of the genre.

Snatching arrows out of the air with his bare hands, because that's cool.

Of course, he takes the young Kil Dong under his wing and trains him to be a karate expert. 15 or so years pass and now Kil Dong is a 20something man with unlimited raw potential and a strong sense of self-importance. He can also jump over big trees in a single bound and hit a skittering deer with a rock from a hundred yards away with laser-guided dead-eye accuracy. He's also figured out how to tie all sorts of fancy pastel and off-white (ecru, mostly, or perhaps more pale eggshell) swatches of cloth around his body, as was the style of the day.

And puffy sleeves, what's up with that?

As I try and notice the background in movies, especially one with a lot of exterior scenes, I can note that Kil Dong's training takes place in the rough and tumble mountains along the spine of the Korean peninsula. Craggy cliffs with hearty trees clinging to spotty patches of soil and the few structures seem like they're one heavy rainfall from being washed away. It's also fall, the leaves are all shades of reds and browns, and it's cold enough that during exterior scenes you can see the actors' breath in the chilly air. All in all a unique place to film a Kung Fu movie.

Under ten feet of snow in a few months.

Sure, Kil Dong looks the badass, but is he really? As you need some sort of overt and indisputable display of his prowess, we now see Kil Dong get into a wicked group fight with a band of dirty, ill-manicured brigands in a local dive bar. He kills their boss and routes the rest in a series of well-choreographed fights, though there's little sense of danger as even at regular speed you can tell that the stuntmen keep their plastic and cardboard swords well away from the main hero (and in slo-mo it's even more apparent). Exciting, sure, but on par with what was going on in contemporary Japanese and Hong Kong martial arts cinema in the mid-1980s.

Well, he didn't really kill the guy, he more just pushed him down and he fell on a knife. Mostly.

The brigands leave behind their latest prize, the kidnapped daughter of another Nobleman (a rival of Kil Dong's father in the Seoul capital). This young woman will end up being our movie's Female Romantic Lead as she almost instantly falls in love with Kil Dong and he with her. She's not the prettiest girl around, if you know what I mean, but that's what we've got so lets make the best of it.

Umm...I'm sure she cooks turnips nicely.

Kil Dong is so distracted by her that his old Master makes him send her away, which he does, though with a heavy heart. Throughout the lengthy training montages, we watch Kil Dong mature and grow, but we never really understand why he's up here spending his days kicking at tree trunks and practicing poking things with swords. He doesn't have anything that needs avenging, really, and he's not been mistreated by anyone of influence (he doesn't even know his stepmother tried to kill him yet). He just seems to really, really want to learn how to jump forty feet in the air and stab stuff real good. I suppose you could make a case that he's bitter that his cushy life in the Royal courts is over, but that's really more his mom's fault for not being able to get along with the Nobleman's first wife. I just think he needs a more powerful motivation for all this effort.


His training complete, Kil Dong and his mom leave the Master and venture down the mountain. Here they meet Kil Dong's stepbrother, who has come looking for them. The family knows Kil Dong survived the assassination attempt because the girl made it back to Seoul and told the story. Her devious father hatches a plan to marry her off to Kil Dong, as he's the son of his rival, thus securing some sort of influence party-political pact with him. I don't care about all this, I just want to see some face-kicking.

The stepbrother wears a silly hat (no joke, just an observation of indigenous haberdashery trends in 16th century Korea, that's all.).

So Kil Dong returns to Seoul, reunites with this Nobleman father, garners even more animosity from his evil stepmother, and generally wishes he could go back up into the mountains and eat yak meat. After his stepmother tries again to have him murdered in his sleep, Kil Dong finally gives up trying to be a city kid in fancy duds and makes to leave for the safety and sanctuary of the mountains. Good, because all that Versailles-esque palace intrigue stuff, while essential to the plot, was dreadfully boring to watch. He also never gets to do more than stare wistfully across the room to his girlfriend, which had to suck.

Ok, but can I attempt my own life? Because this movie sucks that hard.

Almost by accident, Kil Dong then becomes a Korean Robin Hood. Using his mad skills and his keen fashion sense, he starts a one-man crusade to clean up the corrupt and lawless hinterlands of the empire, one mud-hut village at a time. Money-grubbing, cruel magistrates are roundly smacked in the head, state-sanctioned bandits are thumped and thwacked, and the put-upon peasants get all the best rice from liberated government storehouses. Kil Dong has taken the superhero name "The Flutist" because, well, because he plays the flute as a precursor to all his ass-punching kung fu.

Really? Purple and white after Labor Day? Really?

The government seems to be at a total loss as how to put down this growing insurrection, though they're clearly not trying that hard. If they wanted to put and end to this nonsense, they should just do what empires throughout all recorded history have done to deal with such upstart rabblerousers. Step one is to turn the population against Kil Dong by sending 10,000 men to burn to the bedrock every village that supports him. Step two is to offer a huge bounty to anyone who drops a dime on Kil Dong, made easier by all the raping and pillaging. And finally step three is to toss some sort of meaningless reward to the peasants after they've brought you Kil Dong's head, just so they think you're really looking out for their best interests by eliminating a threat to security and prosperity. Worked for the Romans for a thousand years.

They certainly wouldn't be playing "Synchronized Stick Slap" with him.

Meanwhile, back in the comfy confines of the Seoul palace, there is even more intrigue, as Kil Dong's mom, who he left behind in the care of his stepbrother, continues to suffer at the hands of the Nobleman's shrill and evil wife. The young girl from before is still around and still carrying a torch for Kil Dong, sure that he will return one day and marry her. So boring.

Oh, I hear you, buddy.

Anyway, a new faction enters the field now as we see a band of super ninjas attack the imperial palace, kill a bunch of dudes, and carry off some pretty girls and loot. These are "standard movie ninjas" who can leap and twirl in the air, toss throwing stars with deadly accuracy, and even burrow in the ground like sword-wielding molerats. They wear the standard ninja outfits at all times, full-length black pajamas with only their eyes and hands exposed and those uncomfortable-looking rope moccasins. They are called the "Black Corps" and they are "from abroad" (Japanese, obviously).

Evil Japanese ninja guy (imposing unfair tariffs on imported Korean goods and services, specifically auto parts and heavy machinery, to favor domestic corporations in violation of the 2003 Osaka international trade and commerce agreement with reckless abandon!).

Ninjas attack! Up to this point, 80 minutes in, it's been a PG rated movie and even the many fight scenes have been bloodless and tame, almost comical. Suddenly, with the arrival of the ninjas, there's blood and gore spurting everywhere like it's a Sam Peckinpaugh movie! This sudden shift in tone is striking and I'm not at all sure what it's about (maybe a change in directors?). The government troops and the police are unable to stop the Black Corps, and they even kidnap Kil Dong's girlfriend from her bedroom (the cads!). Kil Dong has to ally himself with a reformed former bandit and his earnest, if inept, stepbrother to track the ninjas down. All the nation rallies together, peasant and noble alike, to sniff out the Black Corps' hideout and restore their national pride and honor. Yep, no propaganda here.

These two guys do most of the heavy lifting in these scenes, while Kil Dong is pining for his lost love.

Off now to the hidden ninja camp where we get some backstory and some quick character intros. I can't stress enough that our titular hero Kil Dong has been nearly completely absent from this movie for the last 20 minutes, this after he was in every single scene up until that point. This movie is legendary Korean historical/literary figure Kil Dong's origin story, after all, you'd expect him to be the focal point of nearly every scene and plotline, but he isn't. It's like this movie was once two totally separate films that were duct taped together, maybe a decision was made at the State level that it needed more obvious "America stand ins" so the ninja subplot was hammered in? Who knows, not like the Norks would tell us anyway.

All the lovelies, held in a cage for an unpleasant future of serving tea and noodles.

To the white sandy beaches now, where the ninjas have gathered up all their plundered loot and their captive girls and are awaiting a ship from Japan to take them home. Two things happen now in the climatic last act. First, a government regiment surrounds the ninja party on the beach and attacks, and second, Kil Dong begins a one-man assault on the rest of the ninjas back in their forest den (it's here where his girlfriend is still being held). The fight on the beach is as crazy and frenetic a kung fu group battle as you will ever see, with all manner of flashing blades and gushing blood. There's cages and nets and reverse-film backflips and it's all totally batshit insane. In the end, despite horrific losses, the troops defeat the ninjas and kill them all.

Ninjas, baby!

Back in the woods, Kil Dong is busy fighting a dozen or so ninjas on his own, using his twirling, jumping, and flying ability. The wire-work on this movie is truly top-notch, as good as anything they were doing in Hong Kong during the late '80s karate film revival there. The final fight between Kil Dong and the head ninja is impressive, but ultimately meaningless. We just met the head ninja less than ten minutes ago and he's had about five lines of dialogue, so his death means zip to us. It would be far better to have this final conflict between Kil Dong and someone he's been competing with all movie, maybe some evil bandit lord or even his teacher-gone-bad. That way he could final exact some measure of glorious revenge that's been simmering all movie long. As it is, however, our hero is just fighting some random stuntman in a knock-off Japanese robe and anachronistic vinyl boots.

Kil Dong takes some hits, but he clots fast.

Back in the palace, the grateful King offers anything to Kil Dong in return for saving his kingdom. Kil Dong just wants the King to be nicer to his peasants. Oh, and to have a bitchin' wedding with his girlfriend on the royal dime. The King can't allow that, however, as it would be setting a bad precedent to let commoners marry nobles. So in the final scene, Kil Dong, his mom, his girlfriend, and a bunch of his supporters get on a boat and set sail away for nicer climes. That's surely an odd take-away ending message for DPRK audiences, you'd think they wouldn't be encouraging their citizens to consider escaping their nation and its rigidly elitist class structure that way. I've actually been waiting all movie for some sort of cudgel-handed, obviously-allegorical political message where the Norks, though their state-funded cinema, can remind everyone how much they hate the Americans and the Japanese, but it never really came up that much. If anything, this movie, with it's poor-over-rich and anti-class themes, seems to be more than a little subversive. And yes, I'm sure I'm reading more into this than was intended, but that's what I do here!

The King and his gilded throne, how capitalistic!

The End.

Written in October 2012 by Nathan Decker.

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