These two films star Angela Mao, who back in the day – after a ‘guest star’ role in Enter the Dragon – was often referred to as the female Bruce Lee. She definitely trained up for Hapkido, you can see that her athleticism and fighting skills are real, whereas they look wobblier in Lady Whirlwind. She is also excellent at looking hard and resolute but kind of cute and ready to take you to the bank, the blood bank – as the Bard put it.
The plot of Hapkido will be familiar to fans of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, although Hapkido was made first if released after, according to Mao. Two siblings (Mao, Wong) and their chum (Hung) return to China from Korea after learning the martial art of the title. Their sensei has taught them the value of forbearance, but when members of another fighting school – that has been taken over by Japanese interests – pick a fight with Hung’s character, the violence escalates.
In Lady Whirlwind, Mao plays a woman looking to kill the man (Yi) who seduced then left her sister so depressed that she killed herself. But Yi’s character is himself seeking revenge from Japanese influenced gangsters and martial artists who beat him up and left him for dead. So she has to kick their arses too.
Both films deploy Mao’s talents sparingly. In Hapkido, Mao is the one who best lives by the value of forbearance. Hung and Wong’s characters fight and die before she is spurred into action. That feels like a dramatically fulfilling conclusion, whereas Yi’s parallel arc in Lady Whirlwind is terribly overwritten and a bit boring.
According to Angela Mao, interviewed in the extras, the actors, her frequent collaborator director Feng Huang and cameraman Yu-Tang Li pulled out all the stops with Hapkido.
Not only did Mao, Hung and Wong train loads, but the camera moves dynamically, the fast editing is compelling and uses lots of close ups in fight scenes, attention is paid to keeping backgrounds and framing visually interesting and the dojo based fight scenes are well lit and use high contrast colours to great effect.
There’s also great use of locations, a cracking mash-up soundtrack and some nice noirish lighting in night scenes. The 2K restoration really show its value here.
Sadly, Lady Whirlwind isn’t just a wafflier and more boring story. It doesn’t look so good either. There’s a queasy curve to many of the images, which are often overlit and out of focus. Light sometimes leaks from the top of the frame. The camera work is stodgier and the film feels set bound. Perhaps they were knocking out a quickie – strange then that it is Lady Whirlwind that is the more well-known of the two films.
Extras include interviews with the great lady and her son, now running a series of restaurants in Brooklyn and New Jersey.
Let’s hope there’s more Angela Mao restorations in the pipeline – she is Lady Kung Fu, after all!