Set in Korea and China during the 1930s Japanese expansion in South East Asia, When Taekwondo Strikes tells the story of Korean resistance fighters (Rhee, Wong) hiding out in a Christian ministry. When the priest is arrested and tortured by the Japanese, who have infiltrated a martial arts school, the Koreans team up with Chinese restaurant owner’s daughter Wan Ling-Ching (Mao) and the priest’s niece Mary (Winton – the first Western woman to fight in a HK martial arts film) to get the priest back and stick it to the Japanese invaders.
Angela Mao is often called the Queen of Kung Fu. She is known for her determined characters, exploring her own physical limits in action sequences and a general no-nonsense approach to acting and life. She famously played Bruce Lee’s sister in Enter the Dragon and now runs a series of restaurants in Queens, New York City.
Here she is joined by Jhoon Rhee, the Korean martial artist who is known as the Father of American Taekwondo for popularising that martial art in the US. He apparently taught Bruce Lee a punch that was impossible to block. This was Rhee’s only starring role and he is impressive, as is Winton, who was one of his students. Anne made one more film before dying young in terrible circumstances.
Reliable Carter Wong – often paired with Mao – is on good form here too, and the action choreography is by Sammo Hung, who also plays a dastardly – and dastardly bewigged – minion of the Japanese.
The film has a moral simplicity that is a million miles from the noirish hysteria of Bruce Lee’s classic films. Revenge may be a plot driver, but so is patriotism for both China and Korea, and the spirit of deferred action, of fighting at the right time, reins in the narrative drive.
Again, if Lee looks and acts like a superstar, Angela Mao’s shorter stature, determined face and obvious physical exertion during fight scenes gives her films a heroic realism that you could build nations on.
The whole film feels like a flurry of kick-heavy fights and close ups of faces preparing to fight. And what’s not to like about that?
There is a great extra provided, Sandra Weintraub’s 1990 feature length documentary The Best of the Martial Arts Films. This is not just a collection of wonderful clips of all your fighting faves, as it features an at times unintentionally funny John Saxon telling the story of martial arts cinema from Bruce Lee onwards while walking through a series of gauzy filters.