Legendary karate fighter Matsutatsu Oyama, who wrestled live bulls during the 1950s and was dubbed “the toughest man in the world” by the New York Times, gets an enjoyably hokey tribute in “Fighter in the Wind,” an old-fashioned Asian chop-socky in smart new technical clothes. Eschewing high-tech wire-fu and elaborate CGI, this South Korean pic is more an action drama by today’s standards, but with an agreeable intensity to its fighting and training scenes, plus a nonchalant humor. Outside Asia, late-night fest slots are its clearest avenue; locally, it muscled almost 2.5 million admissions (roughly $13 million) this summer.
Actually a Korean (born Choi Bae-dal), Oyama became famous for his solitary, masochistic training stints, “one strike, certain death” punch and as the eventual founder of the kyokushin school of karate in the mid-’60s. Feted in Japanese manga and movies, he died in 1994, aged 71. Current movie, largely based on a Korean cartoon strip by Bang Hak-gi, is hardly an accurate biopic, more an entertainment vaguely based on the real character.
After leaving Japanese-occupied Korea to join the Nipponese Air Force during WWII, Choi (actor-singer Yang Dong-geun) falls in with a fellow Korean, street-smart Chun-bae (Jeong Tae-woo). Choi’s first taste of Japanese karate is when he fights, and loses to, a military officer, Kato (Masaya Kato, coolly powerful).
Choi stays on in Japan after the war, working as a rickshaw boy and encouraged to train seriously by an older Korean friend, Beom-su (Jeong Du-hong, the villain in “Arahan”). He also becomes romantically involved with a cute young geisha, Yuko (Aya Hirayama), after rescuing her from drunken U.S. soldiers.
When Beom-su is killed by yakuza, Choi dedicates his life to becoming a hardened fighter, and, after rigorous training in the mountains and now with a Japanese name, he tours the country’s various karate schools, trashing their champs. Kato, now the head of the country’s umbrella martial arts association, patiently awaits their final showdown.
With its pyramidal structure, intense nationalism and backlot period look, this is almost a rerun of Bruce Lee’s “Fist of Fury” (aka “The Chinese Connection”) but with a Korean as the underdog. With several real-life martial artists in the cast (Kato, Jeong Du-hong), and Yang convincingly doing his own stunts, the fight scenes, shot in a slightly shuttered style, pack a punch in a traditional way.
In raggedy clothes and feral hairdo, Yang brings an insouciant flavor to Choi/Oyama that’s appealing, matched by Zhao Wei-lookalike Hirayama’s wide-eyed perf as the token love interest. Onetime arty director (“Yuri”) turned mainstream helmer (“Libera Me”), Yang Yun-ho assembles a smooth, good-looking package that doesn’t feel over-long at two hours.