Interview: Korean Actor And Martial Artist Hwang Jang (Jung) Lee
Back in September 2014 I had the great honour of meeting and interviewing actor and real-life martial artist Hwang Jang-Lee in a plush hotel in London arranged by filmmaker and author Toby Russell. The interview, along with a selection of photographs I took of Hwang Jang-Lee on the day looking very dapper in a shiny blue jacket, was published as a condensed version for UK magazine MyM in issue 34. (A print copy of MyM issue 34 can be ordered online from MyMags)
Now for the first time I am delighted to be able to publish the interview in its entirety for your enjoyment.
Fighting Fit - An Interview with Hwang Jang-Lee
Known to his many fans around the world as ‘Silver Fox’ or ‘Thunderfoot’ because of his incredible kicking skills which include a triple flying sidekick, real-life martial artist and actor Hwang Jang-Lee is a legend of Hong Kong Cinema who has played some of the most popular villains in classic films like The Invincible Armour (1977). The day before his weekend appearance as Eastern heroes Special Guest at SENI - The Combat & Strength Show 2014 held at the Soccordome in London (13th & 14th September), Hwang Jang-Lee graciously gave up some of his time to talk to me about how he developed his own fighting style and what it was like working with another living legend of Hong Kong Cinema, Jackie Chan, on two of his most successful films.
Is this your first time in London?
Yes. I went sightseeing for eight hours - London has the most beautiful buildings, they’re everywhere.
What are you looking forward to most at being at Seni - The Combat & Strength Show 2014?
I’m looking forward to teaching some of my martial arts to those people who will be attending my seminar. I want to pass on my skills as a martial artist to others so in the future when I die my style will not be buried along with me.
What kind of techniques will you be demonstrating or teaching during the seminar?
I will be teaching the origin of my martial arts. Many people don’t know it. All martial arts are the same, but I will teach my martial arts which is connected to a scientific way.
Before we delve further into that could you tell us a little about your background?
I am Korean but I was born in Hokkaido because my father was working in Japan at that time. When I was two years old his contract had finished so my family went back to Korea.
What were you like as a child, were you shy, easy going, rebellious?
Oh, I was shy. I was so shy I couldn’t eat anything in front of a woman [Laughs].
When did you start learning martial arts and where did your interest come from?
I started training when I was 14 years old. When I was young many boys my age wanted to be either in entertainment or an actor in the martial arts films. I liked the martial arts so I choose that.
Your parents didn’t approve of you practicing martial arts, did they, so you kept it a secret from them?
Yes, they hated it because it was associated with bad people at the time, gangs, murderers etc.
What fighting style did you learn first?
I went to the mountains for six months and learnt how to train in martial arts by myself. I was so tired but I found a scientific way of the martial arts. One day when I was training I changed my actions and found a new way. The actions are formed from a scientific way which I developed myself and are different from other martial art styles. The body is the first and most important thing - the hands and legs follow the body. My martial art is based on the principle of the circle (he demonstrates by twisting his body from the hips) it helps in keeping the body balanced.
Have you ever fought in a tournament?
Yes, I have.
Did you win?
Of course! But before entering the competition I had never actually hit anyone, but I had created a scientific method so I felt confident I would win. I’m very good at reading my opponents body language and knowing what their weaknesses are.
How and why did you get involved in the film industry, was it something you’ve always wanted to do?
I started when I was 26 years old. I trained in the martial arts and wanted to use what I had learnt in films.
Did you ever have any formal training as an action actor or did you learn your skill as you went along?
I trained in the gym in how to prepare safely for the action.
When it came to the fight scenes in your Kung Fu films were you encouraged to improvise and contribute ideas, or was it a case of this is how the fight choreographer wants it to be so that’s the way it has to be done?
I was allowed to come up with the ideas myself. I wanted to incorporate my own style into the films.
Was it the same for Secret Rivals (1976), one of your earlier Hong Kong films in which you appeared as the now legendary screen villain Silver Fox?
Yes. The action director said “Do it like this” but I said “that isn’t powerful enough, it should be done this way”.
How would you prepare for a role, did you discuss your character with the director or writer or was it mostly left up to you to create and develop?
The director or writer would tell me how they want me to play the role. I would also go to the beach and kick the water and practice balancing my body.
Did it ever bother you that in most cases you were asked to play the bad guy?
I didn’t mind, I look like a bad guy [Laughs!]. I like the bad guy because he is always more powerful.
You’ve worked with Jackie Chan on two of his most successful and popular films Snake in the Eagles Shadow and Drunken Master, both released in 1978. Could you tell us a little about what it was like working with Jackie?
It was very easy to work with him. He was very fast, very controlled and very humorous - I enjoyed the experience much more that time.
Is it true that during a fight scene with Jackie you accidentally kicked out one of his front teeth?
Oh, yes. Before the actual fight scene we practiced how we would do it and I accidently kicked him in the mouth.
Did he get angry?
No, no, he wasn’t angry, he was OK. He knew it was a mistake, an accident.
Have you ever been seriously injured on set?
You appeared in Ninja Terminator where you famously wore a white suit and a golden wig. No one else but you could have pulled that look off, which is a testament to your onscreen coolness. When you were asked to wear this outfit did you initially think “I’ll look ridiculous in this” or did you think “yeah, I can pull this off”?
Of course, I didn’t want to do it – looks like a woman, right?! [Laughs!]
Yes I was impressed, but they are both different. Sanada is thin so he’s fast. Canon is quite big and much heavier, so he’s the opposite.
From your point of view as a genuine martial artist, how important do you think it is that action films should feature ‘real’ martial artists rather than just actors?
It’s very important to show real martial artist because that’s how the films originated.
During the 1970s kung fu mania had exploded in the west. Were you aware of this phenomenon that was taking place?
Yes, I was aware of it.
Over the years you’ve managed to establish an impressive body of work, most of which happened during the 1970s and 1980s. How difficult was it for you to find regular work as an actor during those two decades?
It was quite hard but I was working a lot, I kept working and working. It became quite difficult to find the time to workout.
In 1981 you directed you first movie Hitman in the Hand of Buddha. What was that experience like for you being on the other side of the camera as well as in front of it?
Through my acting I knew how the camera worked, I knew about the technical aspects like camera angles, so it wasn’t difficult for me – I felt confident.
By the 1990s you appeared less and less in films and decided to venture into other businesses such as running a hotel in Seoul. Why the change, had you had enough of the film industry or did you just want to try something new?
I just wanted to try another business. But I was too busy to take care of the hotel business so it closed down [Laughs!]
In 2009 you returned to acting in the historical Korean TV drama The Return of Iljimae. Why did you decide to return to acting?
Because it’s my job. I tried other businesses but felt it was right to go back to acting.
Of all the films you have appeared in which ones are you most proud of?
Snake in the Eagles Shadow and Drunken Master.
And are you proud of the characters you’ve played like Silver Fox?
Yes. When I was in Africa everyone called me Silver Fox [Laughs!]
Your known and respected for your incredible kicks, but who in your opinion is the greatest kicker?
Aside from you.
Casanova Wong (Warriors Two - 1978).
You continue to study and teach martial arts. Thinking ahead, what goals have you set for yourself?
Martial arts are becoming less popular these days so I want to change that by making it more interesting.
Well it’s obviously worked for you because you look in great shape. (Hwang Jang-Lee was born in December 1944).
I always try to keep my body healthy. There are three things: The first one is sleep well. The second is to eat healthy. And the third is to exercise every day – and go to toilet regularly. These are three things you must do to stay healthy.
That’s sound advice. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you.
Thank you very much.
The film posters shown above (The Invincible Armour and Tiger Over Wall), appear in the excellent 200-page poster book The Art of Vengeance: A Pictorial Journey of Hong Kong Cinema Posters Vol. 1 by Toby Russell. Both Volume 1 & 2 are available to purchase from Hate-Media.