AKA: Eighteen Martial Arts
Director: Kim Si-hyun
Writer: Kim Kyeong-il
Cast: Dragon Lee (Mun Kyong-sok), Yuen Qiu, Choi Min-kyu, Baek Hwang-ki, Kim Ki-ju, Kim Ki-ju
Running Time: 83 min.
Back when I was first getting into the kung fu genre many years ago, upon witnessing a handful of Korea’s contributions, I confess to being quick to write them off as low budget imitations of Hong Kong’s far superior output. Looking back, I now feel like I jumped to that conclusion in haste, and over the years have become more and more convinced that, far from being imitations of Hong Kong’s own kung fu flicks, the Korean kung fu movie exists in its own quirky little world. Admittedly, many of the countries titles are all but impossible to view in their original language and version, with those readily available being re-titled, re-dubbed and re-cut versions released by Godfrey Ho and Tomas Tang’s Asso Asia distribution company. It was a practice that formed a successful business model in the late 70’s and 80’s, as western audience’s appetite for kung fu movies secured a successful return for these radically altered variations of the original production.
Director Kim Si-hyun’s 1981 movie Eighteen Martial Arts is one such example of this, with the Dragon Lee starring adventure re-titled Dragon, the Young Master for its western release. Si-hyun was no stranger to making kung fu movies, and is a name synonymous with the genre in Korea. His movies were also no stranger to being given the Asso Asia treatment, with his other collaborations with Dragon Lee, such as A Fight at Hong Kong Ranch, being re-titled to Golden Dragon, Silver Snake, and Secret Bandit of Black Leopard being re-titled to Enter the Invincible Hero. Both Si-hyun and Lee had extremely busy years in 1981, with Si-hyun helming 4 productions, and Lee starring in a total of 6 movies, the highest number in his filmography (note the source for these figures is the Korean Movie Database).
The plot for Dragon, the Young Master revolves around the mysterious figure of the Silver Ninja. Indeed the biggest part of the characters mystery is that he’s not silver at all, but rather is distinctive thanks to his all white attire and knitted white balaclava. Yes, if you’re thinking that he’s also technically not a ninja either, you’d be correct. Amusingly, when not involved in any action, the Silver Ninja wears a triangular black hat which covers his whole head, with two holes cut out for the eyes, giving the appearance of a low budget kung fu Darth Vader. Trust me when I say that it’s no spoiler to reveal that the Silver Ninja is Dragon Lee, from the moment he appears on screen and starts gesturing with his head and giving the thumbs down to a group of bandits, it’s blatantly obvious. So for those who want to see Dragon Lee unleashing his kicks while wearing a white balaclava and cape (correct, a cape), you’ve come to the right place.
As with too many Dragon Lee movies to mention, here he plays a wanderer, and as usual, it turns out that he has a secret agenda of revenge. For Dragon, the Young Master he’s paired with kung fu femme fatale Yuen Qiu. While these days Qiu is most well known for playing the landlady in Kung Fu Hustle, it’s worth remembering that she went to the same Opera School as the likes of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, and back in the day certainly had the moves. Interestingly from 1978 – 1981 she appeared in three Korean kung fu movies, all starring alongside Dragon Lee, with the other two being Dragon Lee Vs. The Five Brothers and The Dragon’s Snake Fist. Lee is soon busting the moves on Qiu’s flower seller, and performs an impressive fight scene against a group of thugs harassing her, were he keeps a white rose between his teeth from start to finish.
Qiu thankfully isn’t relegated to a damsel in distress role, and proves that she’s more than capable of handling herself, eventually teaming up with Lee that sees her on equal action footing with her co-star. The contrast between the pairs fighting styles is one of the highlights of Dragon, the Young Master, with Lee’s trusty mantis fist and Taekwondo kicks nicely offset by Qiu’s acrobatic flourishes and handwork. As with any Korean kung fu movie, the action comes thick and fast, and the heroic pair get to take on pretty much a who’s who of Korean kung fu talent of the era. Taking on both fight choreographer duties, and playing the main villain of the piece, is Choi Min-kyu, an actor who I’d dare say has made an appearance in every Korean kung fu movie I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot). Throw in plenty of familiar faces such as Baek Hwang-ki and Kim Ki-ju, and any fan of Korean kung fu cinema from the era definitely won’t be left wanting.
One point that becomes clear as soon as you start watching Dragon, the Young Master, is that it appears to have been filmed in the depths of the Korean winter. If the visible breath didn’t give it away, then the snow covered landscapes certainly do. Thankfully the wardrobe department have given Lee more than his standard white t-shirt to wear this time around, and the winter setting does allow for a great one-on-one fight featuring Lee at the 30 minute mark, which takes place on a snow covered frozen lake. I wasn’t able to identify who Lee is fighting against, however he provides a worthy opponent for Lee’s skills. The fact that they’re fighting on ice introduces the unique sight of them sliding at each other rather than charging, and there’s some nice exchanges. The same fight also highlights the comedic elements of the movie, with Lee at one point crouching down between the legs of his opponent, and unleashing a barrage of head butts to the nether regions.
An equal amount of comedy is conveyed through the often hilarious dubbing. The line “You’re the Silver Ninja!” must be delivered to Lee over 100 times, and rarely a minute goes by without someone being called a fool, bastard, or being asked if they’re tired of living (a staple line of almost every Asso Asia dubbed movie). The intentional comedy doesn’t fare quite as well, and there are some cringe inducing scenes to suffer though, one in particular which sees a thug adorn his head with a pair of horns, and proceed to charge at Lee while he waves a table cloth like a matador. Luckily though these scenes are in short supply, with some nonsensical dubbing always just around the corner to bring proceedings back on track. A highlight sees a group of bandits return to Min-kyu after being heavily defeated, to which he bellows at one of them “Look into my eyes!” Immediately after doing so, the bandit drops dead. However this seemingly supernatural power is never touched upon again, it looks like the dubbing crew just threw it in there for fun as it fit the scene.
The finale eventually builds to a showdown which sees Lee and Qiu team-up to take on a sword wielding Min-kyu and his brother, played by Kim Ki-ju (decked out in a bow-tie combo, which is never explained). It’s a lengthy fight, which for the most part has Lee and Qiu perform empty handed, however mid-way through Qiu does arm herself with a pair of daggers, and Lee also reveals an extendable fencing sword – think Donnie Yen’s extendable baton from SPL. Bizarrely, Lee only uses it to gain the upper hand, and once he has it (about 20 seconds later) immediately throws it away, a decision that I found to be as hilarious as it was random. The finale also allows for Lee to go into wild mode, with some seriously intense head shaking and chicken clucking going on. Even Qui gets in on the madness, at one point deciding to head butt everyone instead of simply punching or kicking them. Needless to say, by the time the pair are ferociously ripping Min-kyu’s clothes off, there’s no doubt that it could only be a Korean kung fu flick.
While Dragon, the Young Master doesn’t quite rank up there with Lee and Si-hyun’s previously mentioned collaborations, there’s still plenty of fun to be had with it. From location spotting (eagle eyed viewers will notice the Lee and Qiu throwdown against Min-kyu is in the same temple that features in Secret Ninja, Roaring Tiger), to the hilarious dubbing, to a manic finale that sees Lee crank it up to 11. For fans of Dragon Lee, there should be no hesitation to check this out, and for everyone else, as long as you remember that white is the new silver, there should be something to enjoy as well.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10