masterly master lee

a home for forgotten and famous korean pulp, its heroes, its heroines, and its pulpeteers

The Invincible From Hell 1981

masterlee.jpgThis blog really should have started with a review of this DVD (a double feature; the other movie on it is Duel of the 7 Tigers), starring the eponymous Master Lee. In The Invincible From Hell Master Lee plays a former triad member who has taken on the triads after they killed his wife. This really is a very nice movie, starting with the soundtrack, which is improbably versatile and ranging from classic ’30’s cinema suspenseful moments to 70’s-style jazzy intermezzo’s and the high tempo adrenaline-charged chase music made popular by Miles Davis for l’Ascenseur pour L’échafaud. A flashback to Master Lee’s happy days picturing him on the beach with his wife is accompanied by a Burt Bacharach-inspired ditty with those campy seventies background singers going “la la la”. The movie, though instantly recognizable as a low-budget martial arts flick, looks well-cared for, as if someone put a lot of attention in it, rather than money. The original Korean version is lost, but the dubbed version (which makes Master Lee talk like an English gent, stating someone is “perfectly harmless” and declining to discuss his wife’s death with the words “I’d rather not discuss that”) is well-done, although at times inadvertently over the top. Master Lee is not only a former triad member (“a rascal who just likes to fight” in his own words), apparently he is also a Catholic, as it is a Catholic priest who tells Master Lee where to go and what to do in his battle against the triads. Master Lee, alas, is also a bit of a simpleton, better with his fists and feet than with his brains. In his own words: “Though I’m not an educated man, I know the difference between right and wrong.” That he does, and if he doesn’t, his fists do. Master Lee is not a young action hero, he looks in his mid-forties. He fights like a 70’s kickboxer, right-hooking his way out of trouble, lots of backhanded punches and high circular kicks that will ruin your ankle if they don’t land right.

Despite the atrocious title, this is really a little gem. The bad guys are, as they should be in Korean movies, yakuza-inspired gangsters, although they go by the name of triads here. They use katana, they congregate in a Japanese style mansion in front of a rising sun flag and they anachronistically aim to get all Chinese hooked on opium. Although clearly shot in urban South-Korea, the movie purports to play in China, or rather, in that ill-defined twilight country of Korean martial arts and gangster movies from this period: it may be Korea, or Manchuria, or China, the period may be the colonial period or the postwar period, but the bad guys always look like they could be Japanese.

The story is simple, yet sufficient. Master Lee works for a Catholic anti-triad organization (try to Google that!), picks up an orphaned boy and a charming beauty (Linda Han) on the way and kicks ass, interspersing his right hooks with pronunciations such as: “My family was killed by the triad society. It was a tragic thing to have happened.” Still, despite the occasional awkwardness of the acting and the dialogue, the movie works because it comes across as sincere. Well, most of the time, that is. When Master Lee’s love interest states with twinkling eyes that “it’s marvelous, I love to see men when they’re fighting”, only to follow that up five minutes later with “I don’t like fighting, I’m completely against it!”, the sincerity of the movie takes a blow. But still.

The movie has an unexpected finale in the cellars of the villains’ layer, which combines all the expected and necessary ingredients of a pulp movie with some that you would not expect. The religious orientation of the movie is emphasized (perhaps to appeal to another demographic? Catholicism is a strong presence in South-Korea) and Master Lee turns out to be a crusader: “His belief in God unshakable. When he seems to be taking revenge, he is only fighting the powers of Evil.” And that he does admirably. With a long-suffering look on his face, Master Lee throws hooks and launches kicks to the glory of the Almighty. It’s a wonderful movie and if you take a look at the wallpapers from time to time, you’ll understand where part of the inspiration for Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy came from. Masterly Master Lee pulp.

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