A title like this sure gets me going. Manchurian Tiger… with Han Yongcheol 한용철 aka Charlie Han, the guy who packs a punch and a kick or two. And directed by the dean of Korean action Lee Doo Yong 이두용. The movie starts out great with Han extorting money from a dubious-looking character. We know we’re in Manchuria because the dubious-looking character is dressed in Chinese-style clothes (let me rephrase: cinema Chinese-style clothes). Action then switches to the bad guys (same clothes, mixed with Japanese-style clothes to conveniently identify who’s bad) who are kicking, punching and whipping the bejeezus out of an honest-and-solid-looking character. Point of note: One of the baddies is not only big, evil and bald, but also sports a thin stripe of hair running over his skull to his forehead (or actually, to the place where his forehead might reasonably have been expected to be were he not humankind’s closest living relative to the Cro Magnon). Audio quality is really bad, but apparently the überbaddie is looking for some secret evidence and ends up killing the honest-and-solid-looking character (who has by now identified himself as a Korean citizen) with his, presumably, signature technique: a claw hand under the throat of the unfortunate man.
The plot (yes, I know, it’s a presumptuous word in this context) thickens when a group of baddies returns who then admit they’ve been beaten up by one man using… taekwondo. This gets the leader’s goat who immediately dispatches more men to bring the taekwondo character to him (presumably involving a fair amount of gratuitous violence). Han, who meanwhile has found a place to eat in a restaurant that cries out to be beaten and kicked to a smouldering ruin, is accosted by a bunch of unfriendlies. I am not entirely sure whether these are the men sent by the pissed-off leader of the men who had already gotten beaten up or by Fatty (뚱보), said leader’s main rival (or so it seems), because I was watching the plot take a hike and disappear through the window. It doesn’t really matter, because Han puts on a masterclass taekwondo or “how to look stylish while kicking people in the head who attack one by one.” The snazzy mustache Han is sporting certainly helps him looking cool in a decidedly 70s way. The action is textbook taekwondo demonstration stuff: lots of roundhouses aimed at the head (Chuck Norris eat your heart out!), spinning kicks and hooks to the head. For a moment it looked like it might get interesting when one tough guy introduced a metal chair (thank you WWE), but Han roundhouses and straight-punches his way out of trouble, which makes him look as if he’s giving a black belt examination demonstration. Another point of note: on second thought, that might not be a stripe of hair, but a scar. Video quality isn’t exactly great, so it is hard to tell.
There are definitely elements of a western in Manchurian Tiger. The stranger (Han) coming to town, the saloon (restaurant) fight and the best part: a coffin maker who is instructed by the bad guys to prepare some coffins (presumably for Han) and for himself if he doesn’t hurry up. Then there’s the obligatory Visit-To-The-Stranger’s-Hotelroom scene by the guy with the scar over his face (it’s a scar, because we get to see it real nice and close, just before his face is kicked to a pulp by the soles of Han). The fighting scenes look OK. Nothing special, the moves are good, but there’s a distinct lack of fluidity as if each move is a move unto itself and there is a pause between each move and the next. In between, everybody curses the Japanese to remind the viewer that we’re looking at a piece set in the colonial period.
Slowly but surely something resembling a plot became apparent to me: Yongcheol is a gangster with a deadly kick, who gets implicated in the killing of the brother of his lover. The actual murdere is Yamamoto, who has a Japanese name and thus is to be kicked to a bloody pulp according to the laws of the genre. Yongcheol drowns his sorrows in alcohol, but sobers up in time to find out that Yamamoto (who by the way is very good at smashing empty bottles with his bare hands) has kidnapped his lover. Yongcheol then joins the independent movement (which was very active in Manchuria in the 20s and 30s) and becomes a righteous man (which brings the added bonus of being able to smithe enemies with one’s righteous indignation). You can fill in the rest. Let’s put it this way:the viewer knows what s/he would have rightly done to the likes of Yamamoto! And Han obliges…
This was one of the first really Korean action martial arts movies in this vein. As such, it’s easy to criticize the lack of sophisticated action moves, but at the same time these movies (Lee would go on to make a fair amount of them) provided a different view of martial arts, away from the fist-oriented, kung fu-dominated Hong Kong movies and paving the way for the Hong-Kong/South-Korea co-productions I am so fond of. So for the pioneering spirit of this movie (and for the last scene in which Yongcheol, accompanied by a Mexican-sounding trumpet diddy, rides off alone into the sunset in a cart with a coffin full of gold for the independence movement), I pronounce Manchurian Tiger masterly pulp.
Afterthought (as if I think after watching a movie like this): I recently acquired this poster, which proudly claims Bruce Lee to be part of the cast! Charlie Han became Bruce Lee and the Manchurian Tiger gained a sibling. Anything for a few bucks. It does show how popular these movies were across the globe. Time to do some research on this. Yes, yes, I am working on it.