Writer/Director Yang Yun-ho's 2004 film Fighter In The Wind beings as the Second World War is underfoot. A poor young man named Choi Baedal (Yang Dong-geun) decides to leave his native Korea and travel to Japan where he hopes to train as a pilot. He soon learns, however, that the Japanese aren't really willing to accept him into their culture and Choi finds himself being treated like a second class citizen everywhere he turns. In fact, after trying to enlist in the Japanese air force, he's pretty much forced into the Kamikaze program, where his resistance earns him a pretty serious beat down from a Japanese officer named Kato (Masayo Kato).
After some time, Choi runs into a fellow Korean and new best friend named Beom-su (Hong-jong Doo) and he winds up learning martial arts from him. As time passes, Choi's fighting skills become quite formidable. Meanwhile, the town that Choi is living in finds itself in trouble when the local Yakuza starts rouging up the populace and extorting money from them. Beom-su is tough enough to stand up to them, but after a while, they decide he's a problem that needs to be eliminated and they have him killed. Choi is obviously devastated by the death of his best friend and so he heads out of the city into the wilderness where he trains. He returns to civilization two years later, calling himself Oyama Masutatsu, where he begins challenging the best martial artists in Japan and sets out to prove his supremacy in the fighting arts and prove that being Korean isn't nearly as bad as the evil Japanese seem to think it is.
Right off the bat you realize that this film is, at its core, meant to inspire Korean pride. It's as nationalistic as you can imagine and each and every single Korean character in the film is always noble, always heroic, and always standing up for what is right, while the Japanese and American characters that populate the supporting cast are never less than diabolical. It takes this trait to some pretty harsh extremes, but at the same time, given the past ties between Korea and Japan, you can at least understand why a Korean film would take this approach. This does, however, hurt the film a bit as it forces us to suspend our disbelief more than we probably should have had to. Another problem with the picture is the fact that Choi's character is given virtually no background whatsoever. We don't learn what made him the man he is, what gave him his steely resolve or what shaped his character - he's just thrust upon us as a well meaning tough guy who loves his country and wants to prove it by kicking as much ass as he can.
The film isn't a loss, however, as Yang Dong-geun proves to be a very good leading man here. He's entirely believable as he embraces a life of poverty and when he's hiding out up in the desolate snow-capped mountains learning how to break rocks with his fists, it's not too hard to get behind the guy and his cause. The training sequences are intense, fairly brutal, and quite convincing. They're also not afraid to get dirty and bloody in spots, meaning that the violence on display carries with it enough impact to matter. The film also benefits from some solid fight choreography and strong cinematography that does a solid job of capturing the barren, picturesque countryside where much of the film takes place as well as the grit and dirt that is on display in the cities. There's no bullet time nonsense here, nor is there any slow motion or hyperkinetic over-editing on display.
The film might be a little overbearing in its message and its politics, but it's made well enough and offers up enough thrills and entertainment that you're able to look past all that and enjoy it for what it is. Oyama's story was told in a different and more exaggerated style in the three films that Sonny Chiba made (released stateside as Karate Bearfighter, Karate Bullfighter - also known as Champion Of Death when it played theaters, and Karate For Life but this Korean version compliments that take on the story quite well and is worth seeing for fans of martial arts cinema.
Fighter In The Wind arrives on DVD in a 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that, aside from the fact that it's not been flagged for progressive scan, generally looks pretty good. There is a bit of grain and mild specks here and there but the image is fairly clean over while the color reproduction looks nice and natural. Black levels aren't quite as inky black as maybe they could have been but they are consistently strong and there aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement to complain about.
The sole audio mix on this release is a Korean language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track and generally it sounds quite good. Levels are well balanced and there are no problems with hiss or distortion to note. Channel separation is noticeable here and there but it's not really going to floor you or anything and you can't help but think the film would have been more enjoyable with a proper surround sound mix, but what's here is fine. The removable English subtitles that have been included are clean, clear and easy to read and free of any obvious typos.
The most interesting extra on the disc is a solid seventeen minute behind the scenes featurette entitled Action Diary Of A Martial Arts Director. Here we get some interview clips mixed in with a good selection of footage shot on set, most of which is centered on the martial arts sequences which are the highlights of the film. There's also a selection of interviews here: ten minutes with Writer/Director Yang Yun-ho; ten minutes with Actress Aya Hirayama; and seven minutes with actors Yang Dong-kun and Masaya Kato. Yang Yun-ho's interview is the most revealing of the bunch as he talks about where his inspiration came from and why he wanted to make this picture but the performers are able to lend some insight into what it was like working with him on this picture and what they thought of their specific characters.
Rounding out the extras is a trailer for the feature (in terrible shape and culled from a tape source), a music video, a still gallery, promos for other Cinema Epoch releases, menus and chapter selection. All of the extras on this disc are in Korean with English subtitles.
Fighter In The Wind may not be the feel good movie of the year but it does provide some existing martial arts action and a respective amount of well acted and well written drama and character development to hold it all together. Cinema Epoch's DVD looks and sounds decent enough even if it isn't really reference quality, and it's got a nice collection of supplements as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.