It’s fair to say that while actors like Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun have become household names amongst fans of Korean cinema, the name of Hwang Jang-lee might not be so familiar. Of course, it’s perfectly normal to have not heard of him, but hopefully by the end of this blog a few more people can be familiar with the actor who many people refer to as the ‘King of the Leg Fighters’.
|The famous Hwang Jang-lee glare...|
Over a span of twenty years ranging from the mid 70’s to the mid 90’s, Jang-lee starred in over 70 martial arts movies, primarily in Hong Kong but also in
. Generally regarded as the greatest kicker to
ever grace the jade screen, he was the go-to bad guy for, with the exception of
a handful, every movie he was in. Korea
Japan in 1944 to Korean
parents, he and his family moved back to while he was still a
baby. While there, he took up taekwondo
lessons at the age of 14, which set him on the path to creating his memorable
career. By 1965 he’d become a 7th
dan black belt, and was drafted into the Korean army as a martial arts
instructor both for the Korean and South Vietnamese armies. It was here that one of the most famous
stories about Jang-lee occurred, an American soldier stationed in the
Vietnamese army insisted that his style of knife fighting could easily defeat
Jang-lee’s taekwondo skills, and after taking a swipe at him with his knife to
prove the point, Jang-lee instinctively delivered a swift kick to his attackers
temple, killing him instantly. Korea
|The Silver Fox|
A little over 10 years later and after starring in some low budget Korean movies, he got a call from the famous
Hong Kong movie producer Ng See Yuen, who was looking for
new blood to revitalize the flagging kung-fu movie genre in the wake of Bruce
Lee’s death. Jang-lee answered the call,
and was immediately cast as the white haired villain, Silver Fox, in ‘The
Secret Rivals 1 & 2’, ‘Invincible Armour’, and ‘Snuff Bottle Connection’,
all made during 1976 – 77. Many of his
fans still affectionately refer to him as the Silver Fox, based on his white wig wearing
performances in these movies, however it was the next year that cemented his
reputation as the fiercest kicker around.
|Hwang takes flight in his self directed|
movie 'Hitman in the Hand of Buddha'.
Legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping (responsible for the fights in ‘The Matrix’ & ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’) had a new talent to work with, and was looking for a worthy opponent to take him on. That new talent just so happened to be Jackie Chan, and together they had a movie in mind which moved away from the traditional straight faced kung-fu revenge formula that had so far dominated the screen, and focused more on comedy. Woo Ping decided Jang-lee was the man for the job to face off against Chan’s comedic clown persona, and they set about making what was to become ‘Snake in the Eagles Shadow’.
Both Chan & Jang-lee shone under Woo Ping’s amazingly intricate choreography, and Jang-lee had never looked so fierce. Free of the silver wig, his character, as would often be the case with most movies he was in, looked undefeatable. However as the bad guy, defeatable he always had to be. During the final fight Jang-lee famously kicked some of Chan’s teeth out, and so Chan was no doubt not so pleased to find out Woo Ping would team them up again for the even more popular follow up, ‘Drunken Master’, which was made the same year.
Having spent most of 1978 having seven bells knocked out of him by Jang-lee, Jackie Chan stated he never wanted to work with him again, and he never did, instead hiring fellow Korean and Hapkido master Hwang In-shik (no relation) as the villain for when he made his first couple of directorial outings. However that did nothing to stop Jang-lee’s popularity, who went on to spend most of the next 20 years as the jade screens most feared kicker.
In 1981, probably tired of being the bad guy, Jang-lee decided to make his directorial debut and cast himself as the hero of the piece, in the movie ‘Hitman in the Hand of Buddha’. It’s a novelty to see just on the grounds that it has a clean shaven Jang-lee wondering around in a traditional kung-fu movie looking very cheerful and happy, as opposed to the usual intense glares and growls as he kicks the life out of some hapless stuntman. One year later in 1982, his style of kicking had become so respected that he made his own taekwondo instructional video, ‘The Art of High Impact Kicking’, of which I’ve included the very funky video of the opening below.
|His final movie...|
|Wang-lee, on the right, reuniting with|
American martial arts star Cynthia
Rothrock & Chang Yi Tao in 2011.
In recent years Jang-lee has actually come back into the spotlight a little. In 2009 he returned to acting for the first time in 13 years for the Korean TV drama ‘Return of IIjimae / 아온 일지매’, and in 2010 documentary maker Jon James Hodson set about tracking Jang-lee down for an interview in Seoul, which he successfully did, along with many of his old co-stars in Hong Kong who used to be on the receiving end of his kicks, and his son Jason Hwang as well. The documentary is currently in post production and is called ‘The Anonymous King’.