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As much as the Koreans have an innate antagonism towards Americans, they dislike the Japanese even more. As such, even when “Fighter in the Wind” is harsh on the Americans (if you watch enough Korean cinema you’ll eventually get used to the Korean notion of, “The only good American soldier is a dead one”), they’re even more ticked off at the Japanese — unless, of course, you’re a Japanese woman, then they’re willing to forgive. Considering that Japan conquered Korea and crushed their culture for a good 40 years before and during WWII, one can’t really blame them.
“Fighter in the Wind” chronicles the adventures of one Bae-dal (Dong-kun Yang, “Wild Card”), a real-life figure who was immortalized in comics (or manga) for his incredible feats. In the film, Bae-dal is a naÃ¯ve Korean boxer who, after an advertisement literally falls into his lap, decides he wants to become a pilot. Never you mind that it’s the middle of World War II and the job is for the Japanese Imperial Air Force. Alas, being that Bae-dal is Korean, and the Japanese looks down on Koreans, Bae-dal and buddy Chun-bae (Tae-woo Jeong) are tossed into the Kamikaze program as fodder for the war effort. It’s there, while about to be shot for refusing to get into a plane and kill himself, that Bae-dal first meets Kato (Masaya Kato, “Aragami”), a Japanese officer who royally trashes Bae-dal in a fight.
Fast-forward to the end of the war, with Japan now in shambles and under American occupation. Bae-dal and Chun-bae are making a living on the streets and hawking Chun-bae’s newest invention (something call a “pachinko” machine), when they run into trouble with the local Yakuza. Bae-dal is once again humiliated in a fight, and is rescued by Beom-su (Doo-hong Jung), a Korean expatriate who had fled the Japanese occupation of Korea years ago. Beom-su, who has already lost one hand in a fight, tries his best to teach the somewhat empty-headed Bae-dal to use his fists for good. But after Beom-su is killed by the Yakuza, Bae-dal retreats into the mountains, determined to become the best fighter in the world in order to beat those stinking Japanese and prove the superiority of being Korean. Or some such.
“Fighter in the Wind” is one of those movies you can’t really take seriously. It’s blatantly nationalistic, and to try to attach some intelligence to it is to attempt the same with a Michael Bay film. Like fellow countrymen Je-gyu Kang (“Taegukgi”), writer/director Yun-ho Yang (“Libera Me”) wears his nationalism on his sleeves for all to see. The only Korean character in the entire film that comes even close to being less than heroic is Bae-dal’s best friend Chun-bae, who we first see trying to shake down his fellow countrymen in dark alleys.
Although Bae-dal is our hero, the script does a very peculiar thing and almost completely ignores Bae-dal’s background. It’s never explained how Bae-dal grew up to be a dense young man with nary an intelligent thought to offer the world, and who runs around occupied Korea looking like a street urchin. Granted, the filmmakers may be banking that most Koreans will know who Bae-dal is, and hence be familiar with his legend. Then again, this is only a good idea if you don’t care about selling your movie to the rest of the world. Also, not knowing where the hero has been prevents us from understanding where he’s going, and why.
Not that it really matters, I suppose, because soon Bae-dal is suddenly in the mountains by himself trying to break a rock with his hand. Yes, you heard me. At one point Bae-dal is in the mountains freezing to death, living in a shabby hut, and spending his days with his filthy hair draped over his face and his free time trying to karate chop a rock with his bare hand. I absolutely kid you not. It’s all very melodramatic and silly, and the fact that it’s all shot with a perfectly straight face makes it even funnier.
On the plus side, Dong-kun Yang is very good as the unintelligent Bae-dal, even if the character happens to be completely nonsensical. A lesser actor wouldn’t have been able to endure the physical punishment the character takes, nevermind selling all the mystifying training regiment he goes through in the mountains. This guy’s morning exercise makes Rocky look like a couch potato. And through it all, one never gets the feeling that Bae-dal is improving because he’s improving as a martial artists, but rather he’s getting better because he’s just too dumb to realize it’s time to pack it in. Whatever the case, Yang does an admirable job throughout, and you can’t help but root for the dope.
Having mastered snow, the mountains, that blasted rock, and the art of not combing one’s hair or taking a bath for a really, really long time, Bae-dal spends the rest of the film’s second half going about Japan challenging its top karate fighters. Not surprisingly, the man at the very top is Kato, Bae-dal’s arch nemesis, who hatches some nefarious plans to stymie Bae-dal’s rise to the top. As Bae-dal goes about knocking off one Japanese master after another, news of his success flies through Japan at the speed of sound. Who knew some unshaven and smelly Korean guy from the mountains going around beating karate instructors was deserving of newspaper articles and radio broadcasts?
The fighting in “Fighter in the Wind” is pretty good and convincing. At least it is when director Yun-ho Yang isn’t blurring the scenes, shooting everything in slow motion, or freeze-framing for the sake of freeze-framing. Under the choreography of Doo-hong Jung (who also played Beom-su), the fights look realistic and exciting. On the other hand, the script stumbles a bit, especially with the Japanese love interest played by Aya Hirayama (“Waterboys”). This particular angle is mostly superfluous and one suspect it was tacked on by Yang just to prove that not all Japanese people are evil. Although it’s curious that the only three decent Japanese characters in the whole movie consist of two young, pretty women and one kid. Even so, the cute Yoko’s only reason to exist seems to be to cry and pine for the wandering Bae-dal.
On the whole, “Fighter in the Wind” is probably too long at two hours, and as if the whole Yoko subplot wasn’t gratuitous enough, the film goes on a 20-minute tangent towards the end that destroys any semblance of pacing. Still, the action is gritty and well choreographed, and Dong-kun Yang, as the eternally disheveled Bae-dal, is quite good. If you can tolerate the film’s ham fisted attempts at nationalism and its obvious dislike of the Japanese (not to mention every American soldier the film comes across), “Fighter” is a reasonably entertaining way to knock off 2 hours.
Yun-ho Yang (director) / Yun-ho Yang (screenplay)
CAST: Dong-kun Yang …. Choi Bae-dal
Aya Hirayama …. Yoko
Masaya Kato …. Kato
Tae-woo Jeong …. Chun-bae
Doo-hong Jung …. Beom-su