Hapkido For The Stars – The Training of Jackie Chan and Other Hong Kong Film Stars
By Jane Hallander
Have you ever wondered where Hong Kong action film stars Jackie Chan, Angela Mao, Carter Wong, and Smo Hung got their martial arts training?
It wasn’t from some wizened Chinese Kung Fu master who specialized in “secret” techniques. Actually, all four of these actors, as well as other film stars, learned their fighting techniques from a South Korean Hapkido instructor — himself a noted martial arts film star in Hong Kong.
The teacher’s name is Jin Pal Kim, a high-ranking instructor under Hapkido great Ji Han Jae. In the 1960’s, kim was a member of South Korean President Chung Hee Park’s secret service defense force, and in 1966, Kim drew the job of personal bodyguard for the United States President Lyndon B. Johnson during the latter’s visit to South Korea. In the early 1970’s, Kim moved to Hong Kong, opening a Hapkido school and pursuing an acting career. Kim, who now resides in Westminster, California, eventually starred in eight martial arts films, all produced by Hong Kong’s third largest film company, Kai Fa Productions.
Kim’s high, precise kicking techniques drew a number of Hong Kong film stars to his Kowloon Hapkido school. Until Bruce Lee exploded on the screen, most Hong Kong movies featured the low-to-mid-range kicks of Kung Fu. But Lee excited audiences with his high, jumping kicks, creating a demand for more dynamic kicking techniques in Hong Kong martial art movies.
“In those days, most Hong Kong martial arts movies contained only traditional Chinese weapons and many animal hand techniques taken from Kung Fu animal forms,” Kim notes. “Their hand techniques were fast and powerful enough, but something else was needed to make them more realistic. Then Bruce Lee came along and made a name for himself with high, flashy jump kicks that he learned from Tae Kwon Do stylist Jhoon Rhee. The audiences liked Lee’s high, powerful kicks so well that the other actors had no choice but to learn Korean kicking techniques.”
Kim, who uses a combination of speed, mind and body to produce relaxed, whip-like high kicks, also enjoyed instant success among Hong Kong audiences. His high-kicking style was so popular that he earned the nickname “Flying Tiger”, a title that eventually became the name of his Hapkido school.
According to Kim, most Kung Fu stylists do not pivot on their stationary leg when kicking, making it difficult to kick high. Although their low kicks are effective, they don’t measure up on screen to Lee’s powerful, flashy techniques. Traditional Chinese styles don’t contain jumping or flying double or scissors kicks of the variety made famous in later martial arts films by Jackie Chan and Samo Hung.
Chan, Hung and Mao all got their starts in Chinese opera, a stylized storybook combination of acrobatics, martial arts, singing, and acting. Chan attracted public attention in the early 1970’s with his martial arts comedy Drunken Monkey. He began Hapkido training under Kim soon after that film, and still attributes his only official martial arts training to Kim.
“When Jackie first came to my school, his kicks were not very good,” Kim recalls. “Most of his stunts involved rolling and gymnastic techniques from Chinese opera. However, with his flexibility and tumbling experience, Jackie quickly learned Hapkido.”
Chan eventually earned a black belt in Hapkido, learning all facets of the art and specialing in self defense kicking techniques. He was especially partial to aerial maneuvers such as flying side and back kicks, double front kicks, and flying scissors kicks.
Chan’s favourite Hapkido technique is probably the kick known as “eagle jumps and catches its prey.” This technique is used against an oncoming opponent, and the hapkido stylist first jumps on the adversary’s thigh, using it more or less as a step ladder. From there, the Hapkido practitioner delivers either a kick to the head or an axe kick takedown form atop the opponent’s back.
Chan has even taught Hapkido to the 20 stunt men who work for him. Chan demands realism in his movie fight scenes, and each of his stunt men are skilled in kicking, joint locking, and throwing.
Today, Chan is the top box office attraction in Asia, thanks in large part to his Hapkido training under Kim. “Even after he became famous, Jackie was one of the hardest-working people I’ve met,” Kim states. “He took his Hapkido seriously, practicing for hours at a time.”
Hung, known for his large size and innocent appearance, is a talented director as well. He went to South Korea in 1973 to study directly under Hapkido master Ji Han Jae when Hong Kong audiences began calling for higher, flashier kicking techniques. When Hung returned to Hong Kong, he continued to study under Kim.
“Samo Hung is incredibly flexible for such a big man,” Kim relates. “Like Jackie Chan, Hung’s Chinese opera training gave him flexibility. He had no trouble at all with any Hapkido kicks or throwing techniques.”
Hung’s favourite kick, repeated many times throughout his films, is a double front kick, a difficult jumping technique that employs both legs in simultaneous front kicks. In addition to his new kicking expertise, Hung has become skilled at Hapkido’s throws and takedowns.
Angela Mao, who played Bruce Lee’s sister in Enter the Dragon is another of Kim’s black belts. With tremendous acrobatic skill due to her background in Chinese opera, Mao found spinning kicks to her liking, and she trained with Kim for more than two years.
Hong Kong film start Carter Wong, who you may remember as the villain in Big Trouble in Little China, also spent several years in Kim’s school. Unlike the others, Wong had studied Karate, and although he could deliver side, front, and roundhouse kicks effectively, he preferred hand techniques. According to Kim, one advantage of Hapkido in terms of moviemaking is the fact that the style also includes a variety of hand maneuvers that come across well on film.
All of Kim’s actor/students studied Korean weaponry and can utilize single or double short sticks against an attacker. They can also incorporate sticks with joint-locking techniques. Their short stick training transitioned easily to the traditional Chinese weapons used in Kung Fu films. For instance, the twisting wrist action necessary for short stick uses applies well to double broadswords or butterfly knives.
The next time you watch a Jackie Chan or Carter Wong kick the daylights out of an opponent on film, notice how many of the techniques bear a strong resemblance to Hapkido. It’s all due to their training with Jin Pal Kim.
About the author: Jane Hallander is a martial artist and freelance photojournalist based in San Francisco.