Hong Kong Legends are to be congratulated once again on this superb release of the relatively unknown, old-school 1972 kung fu classic, "Hapkido" (listed as "He qi dao" on the IMDb). Chief among the film's many merits is the fact that the lead protagonist is, unusually for the genre, a woman (Angela Mao: familiar to casual fans of kung fu flicks from her appearance alongside Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon", no doubt) who gets down and dirty along with the rest of her male fighting colleagues in some exhilarating, lighting-fast and unapologetically violent martial arts sequences -- with only the occasional resort to wire-assisted special effects for some of the more outrageous moves. Indeed, the petite and delicate-looking Chinese Opera graduate gets to whip everybody's ass over the course of the ninety minute running time, and is the only participant to remain undefeated at the final credits; there is never any recourse to romantic subplot and when Jackie Chan turns up at the end to help out, it is Mao who ends up saving his ass! This very early Golden Harvest outing has all the energy of the better-known Bruce Lee flicks of the period and though it retains some of the humorous elements of GH flicks from this time, it always keeps them in-check (for sure, there are "broad" performances aplenty -- particularly the portrayals of the Japanese bad guys -- but they never descend into annoying zaniness or slapstick) . The result is a vibrant, pacy and action-packed example of the "rival schools" martial arts sub-genre, that will undoubtedly bring back many happy, nostalgic memories of the early-seventies for many thirty-something viewers thanks to its genre indicative crazy crash zooms and melodramatic music cues, which are always crashing in at key moments in an endearingly clumsy fashion.
The film is set in 1934 at a time when Japan's aggressive, imperialist policy had seen it gain complete control of Korea, as well as certain regions of a weak and divided China -- most notably, Manchuria. "Hapkido" reduces the entire political situation of the period to a childish feuding between rival martial arts schools -- with the peaceful, honourable and equality-loving Chinese students of Hap Ki Do (represented by Angelia Mao's character, Ying, and her two Hapkido training buddies, Fan Wei [Sammo Hung] and "older brother" [Carter Wong]), unwillingly forced to butt heads with an opposing, aggressive school, The Black Bear Academy, which is run by warlike, evil Japanese goons (the Japanese master, Toyoda, even has a comical "Hitler" Moustache just to ram home the Fascist nature of the nation he represents). The film's subtext is all about the need for the notoriously clannish and division-prone China to be united in order to prevail against her enemies. At the start of the film we see that Ying and her two male trainees have travelled from China to Korea in order to study the Korean-developed martial art technique known as Hap Ki Do. The school that is training them has been founded as a martial arts underground resistance to the ruling Japanese army (who have outlawed the unauthorised practice of martial arts), so when Ying and her two friends get into an argument with some comically villainous Japanese soldiers, their Hap Ki Do training instructor is forced to send them back to China in order to avoid unnecessary attention being drawn to the school's activities. But he does so with the aim of having them take the values and skills of the Korean martial arts variant they have been taught -- and of which they have become proficient practitioners -- back to mainland China, all the time remembering that they must practice forbearance in the face of any hostility they encounter from rival schools in the martial arts community.
Back on home ground, the trio diligently start up their own school -- The Eagle School of Hap Ki Do -- where they offer training and medical aid to anyone who may care to wander in off of the street. But first, they each set-out individually to make contact and forge ties with all the other martial arts schools in the area, offering the hand of friendship and peace. Things seem to be going well at first; and both Ying and "older brother" succeed in making immediate bonds with several other martial arts schools. Meanwhile, Fan Wei meets up with the rather sweaty, though kindly, head pupil of the Shoulin Boxing Academy -- a portly man named Tiger -- and they both retire to a nearby restaurant for copious helpings of dumplings! There they meet up with Ying, who is immediately harassed by some sleazy individuals who have grown very drunk on sake. Tiger and Fan Wei intervene and find themselves in a major fight; however, Fan Wei draws back from finishing the job when he remembers his master's words about how he should strive to always practice forbearance in the teeth of adversity. It turns out that the drunken yobs are students at the Black Bear Academy, which is a rogue martial arts school established by the Japanese and run by a nasty piece of work called Toyoda. Because the Japanese have gained quite a bit of power in the area, the aggressive activities of the hated Black Bear school go unchecked by the other martial arts schools. When the altercation in the restaurant comes to the attention of Toyoda, he begins a campaign of intimidation against Ying and her friends, visiting their school and causing trouble. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, a Black Bear lackey tries to waste time by demanding treatment for "hair-ache", whereupon, the hot-tempered Fan Wei "cures" the fictitious malady by ripping out a handful of the unfortunate man's hair "just like a dentist would cure toothache by removing a bad tooth"!
The students of the Black Bear Academy also treat the local people poorly. An example of this presents itself to Fan Wei and Ying when they witness a particularly unpleasant member of the school pour scolding water over some live chickens in the marketplace. When the old lady running the poultry stall protests, he pours some over her head as well! This is too much for Fan and Ying to ignore so they give the pupil and the rest of his gang a good beating. While this is going on, however, the Black Bear s star pupil visits the Eagle Academy, where only "older brother" still remains to hold the fort. He puts up a good fight against the many fighters the Black Bears pit against him, but their star pupil is too good a fighter and, not content with just giving him a beating, the Black Bear fighter spitefully smashes up older brother's arm and leaves him for dead. They then take his battered body to the marketplace and dump it at the feet of a seething Fan Wei, leaving a message that Fan must hand himself over to the Black Bears for similar punishment! Fan Wei is forced into hiding and Ying must cope with the attentions of Toyoda alone since older brother is now a cripple. But disaster strikes: the Black Bears discover the hideaway of Fan Wei when Tiger is followed to the secret place after he is overheard buying some of Fan's favourite dumplings at the marketplace. Both Tiger and Fan Wei are savagely murdered by the Black Bear star pupil. Ying must now put aside her policy of nonaggression and, forging an alliance with the braver members of the martial arts schools, determines to face up to the Japanese-led Black Bears and avenge her fallen friends in a final fight to the death.
When Sammo Hung's character is killed, the film takes on a much more serious tone (even though the villains remain somewhat cartoonish) and Angelia Mao really comes into her own in the final two fight scenes in-which she takes on the killer students who have vanquished both of her friends, and comes to the aid of Jackie Chan (who appears at the beginning of the film as a star pupil of the Korean Hap Ki Do school, and who is then sent to aid the Eagle school in their battle against the Japanese) when he takes on Toyoda in a frantic display of swordplay. The perfectly cast Angela Mao lights up the screen; hers is a charming film persona that cleverly combines her relentless extravaganza of kung fu fighting prowess with a counter-intuitively girlish, feminine beauty. Despite starring alongside a particularly fresh-faced Sammo Hung and a young, lean & mean Jackie Chan -- both of whom are at the height of their powers here -- Mao's effervescent personality is never eclipsed by her illustrious co-stars, and this flick remains a compelling and fun introduction to early kung fu girl power ... several decades before "KIll Bill"!
The restored transfer on this disc looks terrific, with vibrant colour and sharp image throughout. The original Mandarin mono audio track is included as well as a 5.1 remix. You can also watch it with an English 5.1 dub track if you so wish. English and Dutch removable subtitles are, of course, included. With great drama, occasional comedy and a constant stream of electric martial arts fist offs, this film is a must-see for all fans of classic kung fu. Highy recommended.
The disc also features the original theatrical trailer and a featurette: - "Hapkido Examined": an interview with Hapkido instructor Tammy Parlour ,who talks about her life as an Hapkido instructor at Chang's Hapkido Academy, and about the skills, the practice and the philosophy of the ancient Korean art. A seperate feature sees Tammy analysing some sequences from the film in terms of their portrayal of Hapkido. As well as fight scenes, the film also contains demonstration sequences in-which some of the most familiar princliples and moves are demonstrated. Tammy's commentery gives a valuable insight into these scenes for viewers who want to pursue the art more closely.