"This is what Sidekicks should have been".
- Joseph Kuby
Korean Boy (1992)
AKA: Kickboxer Kid, Little Kickboxer
Director: Herbert Lam
Writer: Carmel Johnson
Producer: Thomas Tang
Cast: Sean Lee, Jiradech 'Tiger' Picheat, Jacky Yang, Cynthia Roh, Andy Sam, Steve Ma, Keith So, Bruce Chow, Sandra Wan
Running Time: 86 min.
Plot: See review below.
JOSEPH KUBY'S REVIEW: For the sake of remaining authentic to the film's origin, I'll refer to this as Korean Boy (which is the same title that's available to purchase from the site Rare Kung Fu Movies).
To say this film was inspired by Karate Kid would be incumbent but what's not as obvious is that it also borrows elements from Best of the Best, Kickboxer and No Retreat, No Surrender. What this movie has in its favor is the Korean Chuck Norris. I don't know the Korean actor's name but he exudes a certain presence that made me think of the icon that youth like to quote on the internet.
Incongruent to the title's implication, the protagonist is not a kickboxer but an exponent of Tae Kwon Do. The only kickboxer in the film is the Thai antagonist who, while not being someone you're going to confuse for Tony Jaa, makes for a more satisfactory opponent than the one in Kickboxer. To add to the confusion, this film was endorsed by the World Kickboxing Federation (as displayed on the front and back of the UK VHS).
As to whether I like the film, I think it's a good film. The meaningful sub-plot involving the pacifist son of the Thai fighter adds a nice dimension to the film and sets up a peculiar irony when the ending of the film somewhat mirrors the way it began. Even though it's hinted by a fortune teller two thirds into the story, there was not (to my knowledge) a sequel showing the anti-violent Thai son following his father's martial tradition. The ending is a bit abrupt too.
There's a touching piece of music that reminded me of John Woo's The Killer (without being plagiaristic, that is). The acting is okay but the people who make you feel the most are the hero's mother (who sort of looks like a middle-aged version of Hong Kong actress Fennie Yuen) and Sean Lee's teacher (the Korean Chuck Norris - I'm beginning to think this film influenced Sidekicks).
The only bad thing about this film is a characteristic that one would tend to associate with Korean movies: overheated melodrama. There's a scene where the Thai son is emoting towards the camera in the same way a thespian would on stage. Considering the position of the listener (of whom the son is addressing his view points to), it comes off as somewhat contrived and it rivals the most hokiest of soap operas.
In spite of this flaw, I find Korean Boy preferable to the aforementioned movies since it strikes a satisfactory middle ground in the quality of the fights and the non-action elements. The quantity of fights and how they're paced throughout the story makes this more endurable for the ardent martial arts movie fan.
Though what helps make this film a classic is the countryside training sequence. It's distinguishable enough to elevate the status of what would have been seen as an otherwise derivative film. It may lack in originality (one training sequence cheaply apes the one in Rocky IV) but it's still a fairly remarkable film that should have been aired on international television. Korean Boy is good enough to make me think that Jackie Chan starring in a Karate Kid remake would be pointless. Sidekicks, however, is a film where a lot of elements could be expanded upon (particularly with the daydream angle).
The finale in the ring contains a more suitable representation of Karate than the namesake inspiration and there's a Chinese Kung Fu exponent who delivers some visually arresting moves in a scene which is good enough to be the final fight of the film.
The first time I saw this movie was in 1998 when I become a fan of martial arts movies and Hong Kong cinema. Whilst not being a HK film per se, the action scenes were directed by the veteran HK martial arts actor Chiang Tao (the sort of performer whose face is more famous than his name). For those who can't put a face to the name, he bears a partial resemblance to Lo Lieh but also looks like Chan Sing. His most prestigious role was as General Chen Wen-Yao in Chang Cheh's Five Shaolin Masters.
Here, he operates under the name Tony Kong (derived from his Cantonese name Kong Do) which is the alias Chiang would use for various ninja films produced by the same company who did this Korean actioner (Filmark International Ltd. - home of many ninja movies). Prior to this film, he coordinated stuntwork on a quadrilogy of ninja movies: Ninja American Warrior, Empire of the Spiritual Ninja, Ninja Phantom Heroes U.S.A. and Vampire Raiders, Ninja Queen (the film where a man crushed by a falling pig turns into a hopping vampire).
Chiang was also the fight choreographer for Challenge of the Tiger - a rather enjoyable Bruceploitation outing featuring Bruce Le, Richard Harrison, Hwang Jang Lee and Bolo. His most profound efforts at action directing are Brave Young Girls (with Yukari Oshima and Kara Hui) and The Pearl of Oriental (probably the only violent CAT III movie not to have any deaths).
Unlike the famous Tonys of HK action movie-making (Ching Siu Tung and Leung Siu Hung), Chiang never orchestrates choreography in a way which leaves you thinking you've witnessed some of the best set pieces devised on celluloid. I'd say he's good (like the lesser Tonys - Liu Jun Guk and Tam Jan Dung) if not very good (like Tony Chin Yuet Sang). Some bits were even taken from HK movies such as a three-way flip move from the Yuen Biao movie These Merry Souls, an acrobatic joint-lock maneuver (which Yuen Biao did) from Tower of Death and having the camera placed under two combatants as they're fighting (like in The Magnificent Butcher during the fight between Sammo and Lee Hoi San).
With that said, not everyone can be the best and as long as you watch something that's above average (or surpasses your low expectations) then film viewing isn't a failure. Back in '98, I wasn't expecting anything stellar, just average fights that would be on par with the other non-HK martial arts films I saw at the time (Shootfighter, American Ninja, Kickboxer 3). By the end of the film, I was blown away.
When the '90s were over, Korean Boy was one out of three films which surpassed my expectations for martial arts movies not made in Hong Kong. The other two were American Shaolin and Drive. I've seen a lot of martial arts movies since then so the impact of Korean Boy has somewhat diminished over the course of time. Don't fret about this being a kids movie. 3 Ninjas this ain't.
I'd go so far to say that if you want the best example of a film featuring a talented young martial artist (i.e. under the age of 13) without being subjected to corny humor then this is the one for you. Sean Lee, in manner, reminds me of Jet Li's successor Vincent Chiu Man Cheuk. He's a very good kicker and talented at acrobatics. He may not be Hwang Jang Lee when it comes to kicking but he's capable enough to make you wonder why he never received international acclaim.
For a film rated PG, it's fairly violent. It's the most violent PG movie you'll ever see. The UK VHS was released before British Board of Film Classification introduced the 12 rating so there was no such thing as a median between PG and 15. I'd definitely rate this film a 15 with the bruises and blood on display (including an operation scene which takes place after the tournament).
The UK video is somewhat misleading with its insinuation of Korean Boy being an American movie (the flag on the cover being the source of contrivance). Also, the visual quality of the photos on the back of the case gives the impression it's an American movie when, in fact, the film looks like it was made in 1985.
Watching this film for the first time in over ten years made me recall of Twin Dragons (another PG rated film I saw back in '98). Both films begin with a monochrome flashback depicting something tragic happen (complete with a blue hue to give the black and white footage a certain flavor). They even have birthday scenes and a romantic montage too.
Anyway, Korean Boy (forget the pedestrian title) is not a bad film. This is what Sidekicks should have been.
* Various behind the scenes personnel from the Hong Kong film industry appear in acting roles (presumably to save costs or to make extra money). Bruce Chow was the still photographer for Angel Enforcers, Sandra Wan was the costume designer for Revenge of the Drunken Master and Sherman Chow Kam Keung recorded sound for Drunken Tai Chi. The most noteworthy member of the cast is Steve Ma Jing Tao - a popular Taiwanese TV actor.
* The screenwriter is an Australian actress who played Beth Martin in the Australian TV drama McLeod's Daughters. She also had a smaller role in the Japanese/Australian co-production, Ultraman: Towards the Future. A picture of her can be seen here.
JOSPEPH KUBY'S REVIEW: 7/10