AKA: Yong-ho’s Cousins
Director: Lee Hyeok-Su
Producer: Kim In-dong
Cast: Charles Han Yong-Cheol, Hwang Jang-Lee, Nam Chung-Yat, Park Ae-Kyung, Han Kyung, Kwon Il-So
Running Time: 95 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Buddhist Fist and Tiger Claws is about as perfect an example of Godfrey Ho tampering that you’re likely to come across. A 1981 Korean production titled Yong-ho’s Cousins, directed by Lee Hyeok-su, it became one of the many Korean kung fu flicks that were picked up by Ho and Tomas Tang for overseas distribution through their Asso Asia company. At best, under Ho and Tang these movies would be given an English title, an English dub, and a new set of opening credits citing Ho (or one of his many aliases) as the director. At worse, they’d be given all of the above, and then also be re-edited into completely different plots than the original movie, or even have newly shot ninja footage inserted into the runtime to be passed off as a completely new movie.
In this case, Ho’s meddling has it sat somewhere in the middle. While there’s no new ninja footage randomly inserted, the original version Yong-ho’s Cousin’s has been completely chopped up and dubbed to resemble a very different beast than it started out as. The original involved a pair of Korean independence fighters that steal a horde of Japanese gold. When the pair meet an untimely end, half of a map which shows where the gold is buried ends up in the hands of one of the fighter’s sisters, while the other ends up in the possession of Hwang Jang Lee. Step in Han Yong-cheol, who also plays an independence fighter looking for his fallen comrade’s sister, and who ultimately gets embroiled in the search for the gold. Then you have Ho’s version, which strips the plot down to make Hwang a mischievous card sharp who’s after the gold, and ends up partnered with Yong-cheol to find it. That’s pretty much it.
It isn’t the first time one of Hyeok-su’s movies has been bastardized by Ho’s confusion inducing editing, with another production featuring Hwang Jang Lee from the same year, Chunyong-ran, being given the same treatment and released under the title of Hard Bastard. What’s most interesting about Buddhist Fist and Tiger Claws though, at least in terms of its western marketing (which is exactly the audience it was edited for), is its heavy leaning on the presence of Hwang. In fact, the Silver Fox himself is not the main star of the piece, but rather he plays a supporting role to Han Yeong-cheol (who takes center stage on the original poster). Yong-cheol was the leading action star when it came to Korean kung fu flicks in the 70’s, and even over 40 years since he first appeared onscreen in 1974’s Manchurian Tiger, it’s easy to see why. Six foot tall, handsome, and with a confident swagger, even dubbed into English his screen presence and charisma still shines through.
In many ways, the pairing of Yong-cheol alongside Hwang in Buddhist Fist and Tiger Claws can be seen as a handing over of the torch from one kicking legend to the other. By 1981 Hwang had already become a seemingly permanent fixture in Hong Kong movies as an indestructible villain, with enough classics to his name that they run into double figures. For Yong-cheol on the other hand, this would be the last movie he appeared in, and unlike his Korean contemporaries such as Casanova Wong and Kwan Yung-moon, he never felt the urge to hop over to Hong Kong and apply his formidable kicks there. Just 7 years earlier, Yong-cheol played the lead in one of his best movies, Returned Single-Legged Man, horrendously chopped up and released in the U.S. as The Korean Connection. While Yong-cheol played the title character, here Hwang was a nameless lackey, so for him to rise to co-star status by the time of Buddhist Fist and Tiger Claws is to be admired.
Interestingly Hyeok-su, who would continue making action movies all the way up to his final picture with 2002’s Quick Man, cast Hwang in similar roles both in Buddhist Fist and Tiger Claws and Hard Bastard. Playing distinctly against type compared to the unstoppable villain roles he’d become accustomed to playing overseas, in both productions he plays comically inclined swindler type characters, who tend to run away from confrontation just as much as they’re likely to get involved in it. Fans of the king of leg-fighters may be thrown off by such portrayals, and indeed 1981 itself is a unique year in the boot masters filmography. Apart from his comedic turns in Hyeok-su’s productions, he’d spend part of the year minus his trademark beard (including here), and also make his directorial debut with Hitman in the Hand of Buddha.
One thing that can’t be denied though, is the entertainment value derived from watching Yong-cheol and Hwang strut around in their fantastically 70’s style wardrobe, despite it already being 1981. Bell bottom pants, oversized collar disco shirts, and blazers that look 2 sizes too big are the order of the day, and the visual appeal of throwing flying kicks in such attire can likely be appreciated more now than it could at the time of its release. While Yong-cheol had made his fair share of contemporary set movies, including Strike of the Thunderkick Tiger from the same year, Hwang on the other hand had mostly been cast in period pieces, and very rarely got to let loose in a modern day surrounding. This would change as the decade progressed, with appearances in the likes of Bruce Strikes Back and Where’s Officer Tuba?, but by then the bell bottoms were out, and 80’s style nylon tracksuits just didn’t have the same appeal.
Hyeok-su had spent most of the 70’s directing Korean kung fu movies, working with the likes of Casanova Wong, Dragon Lee, and Eagle Han, and sure enough for fans of the genre there are plenty of familiar faces to enjoy in Buddhist Fist and Tiger Claws. From Kwon Il-soo as a black leather blazer wearing assassin, to Kim Ki-ju as a cane wielding villain. The main villain of the piece though comes in the form of Nam Chung-il, who never once takes his sunglasses off, even when he’s in the middle of throwing down. The finale, which appears to take place in a gravel pit, has Yong-cheol taking on Ki-ju, before both Hwang and Chung-il show up, which sees it segue into a two versus one showdown against the latter. I admit that even for me it was strange to see Hwang paired up with another hero to take out the bad guy, as so many of the movies he appeared in involve 2 or more protagonists needing to team up to take out his usual villain character.
However it should come as no spoiler to say that, true to form, events culminate in the righteous Yong-cheol having to throw down against a backstabbing Hwang. To see two legends of the Korean kung-fu movie face off against each other is one of the main reasons to watch Buddhist Fist and Tiger Claws, and it should come as no surprise to say that the confrontation is suitably scrappy and raw. Those looking for Hong Kong style choreography have definitely come to the wrong place, but both sides definitely get their licks in and show off some brutal kicks. Like always, Hwang dominates the fight, the viciousness of his kicks unable to be tamed even for the screen, with Yong-cheol spending most of it on the defence, until the two of them are sent tumbling down a mountain of gravel while still going at each other. As expected, ultimately Yong-cheol makes a comeback, but there’s certainly no doubt left at the end of it as to how Hwang gained his formidable reputation.
Ultimately Buddhist Fist and Tiger Claws is an entertaining snapshot of early 80’s Korean action. The suits are sharp and action is raw, even if not as frequent as some may like. However much like Hong Kong’s Chow Yun Fat, Han Yong-cheol has a level of charisma that allows him to carry a movie by himself, so when you throw in Hwang Jang Lee, things are never going to be that bad. While it lacks the goofier elements that made me so endeared to Korean kung fu flicks – there’s no bizarre instances of wirework or outlandishly whacky characters – for those that like their action served poker faced, shortly before being kicked in it, there’s plenty to enjoy here.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6/10