In the 1970’s, Angela Mao Ying carved out her own unique place in the martial arts film marketplace as a woman who could stand alongside its male heroes. She was lovely to look at but never traded upon her femininity, charismatic in a subtle way and equally comfortable working as a solo star or in an ensemble. Hapkido is a solid example of her skills at work, showing her bringing her own quiet style of star power to a familiar set of martial arts flick elements.
Hapkido is built on one of the most time-tested martial arts film premises, the “school vs. school” plot. Mao Ying plays Yu Ying, a Chinese student of the titular Korean martial art, who has to leave her Korean training place during the 1930’s after fighting with the Japanese soldiers occupying the country. Along with two fellow students/fighters – the calm Kao Chang (Carter Wong) and the hotheaded Fan Wei (Sammo Hung) – they return to China to form a Hapkido school and peacefully spread their martial arts skills amongst the populace.
Unfortunately, China is suffering the same problems as Korea with Japanese forces occupying the land. In Yu Ying’s case, her new school is immediately under threat from the Black Bear Dojo, whose Japanese acolytes bully the locals. Fan Wei is the first to engage with the Dojo’s fighters, spurring a series of brawls that escalate into fierce, blood-spattered death matches. Since the Dojo’s partisans refuse to give ground or let up, it’s inevitable that the Hapkido students will be put to a life-or-death test of their skills.
Simply put, Hapkido is an old-school, brawl-intensive potboiler of a martial arts film – and a very effective one. The script is simplistic in its plotting and characterizations (the Japanese characters are all sadistic brutes) but it masterfully manipulates the audience’s sympathies in favor of the heroes and works up their bloodlust for a slam-bang third act. Its main objective is facilitating a string of ever more intense fights, including several one-vs.-many showdowns, and the result is a well-calibrated fight showcase.
Director Huang Feng worked often with Mao Ying during her ’70s heyday and he provides a strong showcase for her and her co-stars in Hapkido: Hung gets to dominate the early part of the film with a few showcase brawls, Wong gets an elaborate and quite dramatic brawl near the midpoint and Mao Ying gets to display her skills in a string of memorable to-the-death fights during the film’s final third. He handles the fights with a stylish yet subtle approach, holding back on the visual gimmicks to allow the choreography to dominate. He also makes effective use of some unusual settings, the best being a fight in an open-air market.
Finally, the film’s trio of stars do an excellent job. Hung is an obvious scene-stealer as the brawler of the group and the film makes the most of his rough-and-tumble charisma while Wong makes an intriguing opposite as a calm, deferential “quiet type” who can emote in a very subtle way when the film’s melodrama angle requires it. Mao Ying blends the best of both of her co-stars styles: she often underplays to build suspense but is capable of shooting an intense glare that says more than a mouthful of dialogue. She performs like a champ in her big fight scenes, particularly a paint-the-dojo-red finale designed to end things on an appropriately breathless note.
In short, Hapkido is a fun, fight-driven martial arts programmer and a swell showcase for Mao Ying that allows her to share the narrative weight with a few worthy co-stars. If you go for old-school martial arts flicks, this a perfect Saturday night choice.