Fighter in the Wind Review
How ironic that 2004 was probably an all-time high for the profile of Korean Cinema within the mainstream over here in the west. Oldboy won the Grand Prix award at Cannes, Quentin Tarantino used the opportunity to declare that Korean cinema was producing the best films in the world right now, and Hollywood were commissioning remake rights left right and centre. I might've been inclined to agree with Mr. Tarantino if his comments had been made a good two years earlier, but as most Korean fans will tell you, 2004 was not a particularly good year for quality Korean productions. The industry was saturated with formulaic crap and the kind of boring cinematic trends that give Hollywood such a bad image. One such trend was biopics of famous Japanese fighters who were actually Korean expatriates, this not only gave the nation's filmmakers the chance to brag about their countrymen's physical prowess and determination, but also give the Japanese a good cinematic kicking in the process - A win-win situation if ever there was one! One of these films was Rikidozan, about the man who made pro-wrestling popular back in post-war Japan. The other was Fighter in the Wind, supposedly based on Jiro Tsunoda's manga serial Karate Baka Ichidai! (The Fanatical Karate Generation), which itself is a dramatized account of the life of Masutatsu Oyama, the founder of Kyokushin Karate and all round fighting legend.
Focusing on the initial stage of Masutatsu's - or Choi Bae-dal as he's named in this film - rise to fame, Fighter in the Wind starts off in the early days of World War Two, when South Korea was a colony of the Japanese empire and a 15yr old Choi comes across flyers calling for Koreans to join the war effort as pilots for the Japanese Air Force. He sneaks aboard a ship bound to Japan and arrives in a land were intense racism and abuse of Koreans is rife. Unsurprisingly, life in the Japanese Air Force doesn't turn out quite as he hoped, the Korean recruits are totally disregarded when it comes to pilot training, and the rebellious young Choi eventually ends up facing the firing squad for refusing to become a Kamikaze Pilot. He's saved from the bullet by a lean, mean Japanese general named Kato, who thinks Kamikaze pilots are heroes and the ritual shouldn't be stained by Korean blood. Choi is unimpressed with these sentiments and lets his superior know exactly what he thinks about the nation's army. This proves to be a rather bad decision, because - in one of those totally believable movie co-incidences - Kato just happens to be the greatest Karate expert in all of Japan! He challenges the Korean upstart to a fair fight and proceeds to beat the living hell out of him, giving Choi his first bitter taste of defeat.
Soon after this incident Japan lose the war, Korea is freed and Choi sets up a modest Pachinko Parlour in a bustling district of Tokyo with his best friend Chun-bae - that is until the local Yakuza find out Koreans have set up shop on their turf. They arrive to deliver a second humiliating beating for Choi, but their fun is cut short when an old mentor of Choi's named Beom-su arrives and fights off the Yakuza gang single-handedly. Beom-su reluctantly takes Choi in as his student and not only teaches him the basic principles that would later lead to the Kyokushin system, but he also introduces the young man to the philosophies of the infamous Japanese Samurai: Musashi Miyamoto, which inspire Choi to strive to achieve his goals and lead an honourable, just life. He soon becomes a greater fighter than ever and even manages to fit in a romance with a local Geisha named Yoko, but Japanese oppression comes crashing down around him once more when the Yakuza return to continue their feud with the Koreans. In response to this never-ending racism, Choi retreats into the Japanese mountains and undergoes a grueling training regime that turns him into the Karate monster of legend. A couple of years later Choi returns to society and starts traveling from dojo to dojo challenging all the expert fighters he can find. Soon the only man left to defeat is the one man who so easily crushed him back when he was a naïve Air Force cadet….
It becomes clear within the first few minutes of Fighter in the Wind that director Yang Yun-ho isn’t particularly interested in the documented facts of Oyama's life or Jiro Tsunada's Manga story, because he has not been particularly faithful to either. Opting to selectively plunder from both sources to fashion his own story of Korean determination in the face of terrible Japanese adversity, he's managed to do the impossible – make a film biopic that's actually more boring and less sensational than its real life subject! Oyama Masutatsu was a guy who started learning Kempo from the age of nine, had become a 4th Dan Karate master by the age of 20, and who twice disappeared into the harsh Japanese mountains to conduct grueling training regimes – totaling a good three years of seclusion. If that wasn't enough, he also liked to demonstrate his power by wrestling bulls. Sometimes he'd use a knife, other times just his bare hands; but either way, he boasted a record of three kills and forty-nine dehornings – some of them in front of live audiences! Oyama's record against humans wasn’t too shabby either; he took on all challengers across the globe and amassed a record of over 250 fights without a single defeat in sight. In the 1950's he developed his own system of Karate known as Kyokushin (Ultimate Truth) and by the mid-60's he had dojos teaching his system in over 120 countries. Today Kyokushin boasts over 10million practitioners worldwide.
Does Fighter in the Wind cover any of this in detail? No. You'll see a lot of whimpering and an awful lot of Japanese people generally acting like scumbags, but not much about Oyama's vast achievements. Yang Yun-ho's film tries so desperately to be some sort of moving character and social drama that it loses track of the best aspects of martial arts biopics: The sensationalist mythos. The Oyama Masutatsu of this film isn't some ultra-powerful headstrong brawler; he's an ultra-shy doubting Thomas who's absolutely petrified of the humiliation of defeat – character traits that make up for an extremely dull protagonist. The same can be said for the post-war setting of Japan, where the native male population is characterized as either murdering racists or condescending racists. As the main bad guy, Kato is about the only Japanese bloke to demonstrate an emotion other than blind hatred towards Koreans, but even that's just a grudged respect for Choi's fighting spirit. Japanese women fare better of course, being portrayed as harmless damsels in distress in an utterly inane subplot where Choi becomes a night-time vigilante to rescue girls from being raped by evil US soldiers – who manage to pull off the feat of being even more one-dimensionally nasty than the Japanese! There's a clear attempt at dramatic irony here, given the abhorrent crimes against Korean women by Japanese soldiers during their rule over Korea, but the director doesn't actually delve into the suppression and de-emasculation of post-war Japan other than showing how powerless the local police where to stop the Americans. Nope, instead Yang opts to focus on a completely unnecessary romance between Choi and a lovely Geisha girl named Yoko, which is just further evidence of a dull and simplistic approach to his characters that has created a black void in the emotional core of the story, which no amount of hard-hitting scenes of humiliation and bigoted cruelty can overcome.
So what about the action? Given Oyama's history there must surely be some pretty great scraps, right? Well… Not as many as you'd think. For a good hour into the film the action mostly consists of minor tussles, shot with rapid edits and tight framing within the cramped streets of Tokyo. Then, when Choi finally makes his retreat into the mountains to undergo that infamous secluded training, all we're treated to is a brief montage of vignettes showing Choi freezing his balls off and hitting himself with tree trunks - deep stuff! Still, despite totally failing to incorporate a decent training sequence, Yang somehow manages to deliver an exciting collection of fight scenes during the action-driven midsection, when Choi returns to society and starts cleaning out dojos across the country. Paying close attention to the recorded facts of each bout and incorporating some stunning location shooting, it's pretty clear that Yang and action director Yang Gil-young put most of their planning into this act of the story. Not only is the framing of fight scenes more open, giving us a good view of each bout, but the edits are also a touch longer – They're still short, but by this stage in the film Choi has become the exceptionally powerful fighter of legend, a man who was famous for his one-hit kill approach to Karate. Gil-young's fight choreography isn’t particularly original, drawing obvious inspiration from the Bruce Lee movies and Yuen Wo-ping's Fist of Legend, but he's cherry-picked well and incorporated some tough moves to keep main star: Yang Dong-geun on his toes. He certainly lives up to the action director's expectations, demonstrating good natural timing and impressive footwork.
Of course, Yang Yun-ho isn’t above any cinematic cribbing either. Not only are shots lifted wholesale from various John Woo films but there's also one scene, where Choi faces off against a particularly powerful opponent and plays out in his mind which opening attack he'll use before making a move, that is eerily reminiscent of a similar scene in Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi. However, it would be unfair to criticise any lack of originality on Yang's part in this action-oriented stage of the film, because his direction is genuinely engaging and stylish throughout. He even manages to incorporate montages more effectively, with one sequence where three of Oyama's famous fights are intercut to the rhythm of one of Yoko's Geisha dances proving to be the most ambitious stylistic flourish in the entire movie. But just as Fighter in the Wind begins to really shine, everything comes crashing down to earth when an extremely clichéd and contrived dramatic dilemma hits Choi, bringing the action to an abrupt end. Without revealing any plot spoilers, I'll just say that the decision to return back to lame character drama is woefully ill-conceived. Choi becomes even more nauseatingly self-doubting than ever and the film never recovers from this rut, stuttering to the inevitable closing confrontation against Kato with all the conviction of a constipated Rhino. The final fight scene is suitably hard hitting, but I suspect most viewers will have checked out of the movie a good thirty minutes before it even starts - I know I had.
PresentationPresented anamorphically at 1.77:1, Fighter in the Wind has been afforded a decent transfer from Optimum, but one which is let down slightly by a few technical niggles. The first and biggest being the usual NTSC>PAL problems that seem to plague R2uk releases of Korean films these days, not only does the runtime revel zero speedup like you'd get from a true PAL transfer, but playback on a progressive display reveals the tell-tale ghosting videophiles all know and love. The basics are covered well though; the image is reasonably detailed and - assuming they've used the Korean masters - contrast and brightness are surprisingly good, exhibiting none of the excessive clipping Korean transfers are famous for. Shadow detail remains solid, blacks are reasonably deep without going overboard and while whites sometimes seem a little sharp in a few scenes, they remain pretty natural throughout. Likewise skintones remain pleasingly natural and even, while the film's rich colour scheme is rendered richly without any bleeding. The print itself is reasonably clean, with healthy smatterings of film grain and only the occasional fleck or scratch appearing in the odd scene – particularly the finale. Back to the technical niggles though; just about every daytime exterior scene exhibits Edge Enhancements of varying severity. Mostly it's mild, but sometimes it can be very thick and distracting. Another problem is some minor low-level noise affecting the darker portions of the image throughout most the film, which no doubt will be noticeable on large screen set ups. Larger screen viewers will also spot a few compression quibbles – particularly in the form of chroma noise, but I'm sure most people who'll buy this DVD will be pretty happy with how it looks, as it does hold up very well to casual viewing.
For the audio we've got a choice of Korean DD5.1 or Korean DD2.0, both of which are free of any major glitches. The DD5.1 track is extremely loud and aggressive, which seems to suit the twangs of heavy guitar rock that's scattered throughout the film's score and of course the wartime setting. There aren't many air raids featured in Fighter in the Wind, but in what few there are, each and every speaker in your system will be given a thorough workout. Planes whiz across and through the soundstage, mortar shells go off with deafening booms, all coming together in an impressive assault on the audience's ears. In fact, if anything I'd say the DD5.1 is perhaps a touch too aggressive; bass lines are certainly deep and heavy, but they're so loud that they lose a tiny bit of clarity. The same can be said about the dialogue, which remains focused on the central speakers - not to mention clean and audible throughout - but when voices get raised there is some noticeable tearing.
In comparison the DD2.0 track is unsurprisingly much quieter and restrained, but it's a pretty solid DD2.0 that is slightly aggressive when needed and does deliver warm bass and audible dialogue. Like the DD5.1 it too suffers from tearing of particularly loud dialogue, which seems to suggest their audio sources could have done with cleaning up a little.
Clear, removable English subtitles are included, with no spelling or grammatical errors worth noting.
ExtrasOn paper Optimum have included a good selection of interviews here, but truth be told most of the features on this disc aren't particularly informative. The most prominent extra feature is a 17minute video diary from the film's action director Yang Gil-young, which starts off as a very brief on-set interview with the man himself. Thank god it's so short, as Gil-young speaks in a dull robotic drone and has absolutely nothing insightful to say about the production besides the fact that they had to rework a lot of the fight scenes because they couldn't shoot as freely at the famous Japanese locations as they wanted – which makes you wonder how they got the impression that they could just turn up at some of Japan's most historic monuments and tourist attractions and just start shooting here, there and everywhere. Anyway, after about three minutes the featurette cuts to Gil-young's action video diary, which provides candid footage of the various fight scenes in the film, but only shows one or two moves from each fight, so it doesn't really give us a satisfying look at how Gil-young built up the fight sequences. Gil's voice-over diary entries provide very little enlightenment about his work method, aside from stating over and over that he had a hard time coming up with new ideas for each fight and the problems with the Japanese locations were a major sore point for him – so much so that he even considered a change in careers once the film was done! Given his obvious frustrations, it would have been much better to have had him commentating to the camera live during the shoot, as that would at least demonstrate the emotion that his robotic reading is sorely lacking. Still, the feature is not without its merits, Gil is the only guy on this disc to actually provide some interesting (but extremely brief) info on the real Oyama Masutatsu and how this film's story compares to the facts, not to mention providing some brief background info on the main fighting cast.
Next up is a sequence of interviews, first with director Yang Yun-ho, then cast members Yang Dong-geun, Aya Hirayama and Masaya Kato. Yun-ho's interview is actually two separate on-set interviews edited into one, but with almost the exact same questions asked in both sessions, so a lot of information is repeated. Most of what he says is the standard PR fluff, but he does reveal that the script was re-written fifteen times before they settled on a final draft, so that might explain why the finished film is so poorly written. Yang Dong-geun's interview isn't any more informative. He's a pretty down to earth guy and very laid back, but clearly uncomfortable articulating his feelings about the film itself. When talking about the production he's much more comfortable and surprisingly honest, revealing that he regretted taking the role at times because he was getting beat up too much during the shoot. The final two interviews are with the main Japanese actors, so focus more on the difficulties and differences of working abroad, but both Aya and Masaya are happy to answer each question thrown at them and seemed to enjoy working on this film, despite the language barrier being slightly frustrating at times. You might want to put some shades on before watching Masaya's interview though, as he's wearing quite a lot of bling!
The rest of the extra features are pretty standard additions; there's the Theatrical Trailer and a Music Video for some naff Korean pop ballad - both of which seem to have been sourced from a poor quality tape master – and finally a decent sized selection of trailers for upcoming Optimum Asia releases: Azumi, Azumi 2, Arahan, The Doll Master, and Sky High.
Note that the interviews come complete with burnt-in Korean titles and questions, with non-removable English subtitles sitting above and sometimes over this text. They remain readable at all times though. Non-removable subtitles are also provided for the theatrical trailer.