AN INTERVIEW WITH JINO KANG

Jino Kang is an accomplished martial artist, holding Black Belts in Hapkido, Kyokushin-Kai Karate, Tae Kwondo and Gracie Jujitsu, and has been the Grand Master of his own Hapkido school in California since 1981. A lifelong fan of martial arts and samurai movies, Kang got involved in martial arts movies through circumstance in the late 80s, directing, producing, writing and being the lead actor in the independently financed BLADE WARRIOR in 2001, and following it up with FIST 2 FIST (2011) and his latest release FIST 2 FIST 2: WEAPON OF CHOICE (2014). I talked with Kang about his childhood in South Korea, moving to the States in the 70s, his love of Hapkido, the road to becoming a filmmaker, and the journey he is currently on as a filmmaker.      

What was your childhood like in South Korea? 
I don't remember too much of it because I came over to the States when I was 10, but it was a quite interesting childhood. I remember being 4 years old and being woken up to the sounds of people training at my Dad and Uncle's martial arts school, where my father was a Grand Master in Hapkido. They would get me dressed in my uniform and I would join in the training. That is the fondest memory I have of my childhood. I also remember that the elementary schools were tough in Korea. The corporal punishment was for real. I used to get beat all the time because I was always late.

What prompted your family to move to San Francisco? 
That was my father's idea. In the Korean War, he was given a Wrigley's Chewing Gum by a soldier, and we didn't have anything like that in Korea at the time. When he put the gum in his mouth and tasted it, he thought it was the best thing he had ever tasted. It was at that moment he decided that, when he was ready, he was going to go to the United States.

It must have been a culture shock for you coming to the States from Korea. 
Yeah, it was really tough. I didn't know the language. Back then there wasn't really any ESL program, and it took me a long time to understand what was going on. I was definitely ahead in Math, but not in English or Comprehension. Plus, back then there weren't many Koreans or even Asians in San Francisco. If we ran into a Korean on the street, we would be so happy.

What were some of your first impressions of the country? 
Typically Americans don't realise how good they have it. It's such a privilege to live here. It's a free country. Korea is supposed to be a free country but it isn't. It's very regulated and it's very authoritarian. I'm so glad my Dad took that piece of chewing gum! I will always be appreciative of all the things that come with living here.
 
Did you fall in love with Hapkido at a very early age? 
It was bred into me by my father and he continued to teach it to me when we came to the States. He taught me at home until he got a school in 1981.

What do you love the most about Hapkido? 
I love everything about it. It's so comprehensive and eclectic. It borrows from aikido, judo and jujitsu, so you have those strong joint locks and throws. We also incorporate the kicks and strikes from karate and tae kwon do. You also have the long distance weaponry using your hands and feet, and then if you're in a grappling situation, you can learn how to throw, and use joint locks for self defence and so on. The only thing missing is the ground aspect.

What does the discipline of hapkido bring to you? 
It really taught me discipline. It forces you to practice when you really don't want to, and you get from it a mental discipline that pushes you forward. In martial arts, if you don't best yourself, you get left behind. It teaches you to finish what you started. It's a very good goal-setting discipline. It also makes you feel good that you can take care of yourself if you have to. I train every day for that reason. I mean, look at the news. It's crazy.

Growing up as a teenager in the States, did you fall in love with movies? 
My father used to take me to all the Kurosawa samurai movies in Korea, and I loved them. When we came to the States there was a proliferation of kung-fu movies at that time, including the Bruce Lee movies and stuff like FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (1972). When I was 12 or 13 I would go to Chinatown and watch all the movies, and in Chinese. I didn't speak Chinese but I would get the gist from the fight scenes!

What was your goal after graduating high school? Did you want to be a Grand Master like your father, or become a filmmaker? 
Filmmaking was not on my mind. My goal was to open up a school. My father didn't want me to do it until I was old enough. After graduation I stuck around local junior college for a bit, and then when I turned 21 my father said ''OK, I think it's time for you to open up a school. But first, I want you to go out and get a black belt in another style. '' So I started studying karate, and in less than a year I got my black belt. In 1981 I opened up my own school, and in 1988 we moved out of San Francisco and we have been pretty successful.

How did the idea to start making films come along? 
In junior high school, a bunch of my martial arts friends and I would run around with Super 8 cameras and we would make little films. Whoever had the film would be the star of the film, and get to beat everybody up. They were fun times. This may have planted the seed, but it wasn't until 1988 or 89 that I started thinking of making films. Grand Master Leo Fong and Ron Marchini had a martial arts tournament and the winner got a part in a movie, which ironically was named WEAPON OF CHOICE. The film never got distribution, and I thought to myself ''One day I'm going to use that title!'' My part in that film was a FBI agent named Josh. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the process of making a movie and I got to choreograph my own fight scenes. I thought ''I can really do this. '' A few years later I enrolled in a college in Marin and they had a great film program there. We actually did everything on film, not digital. I wrote my first screenplay and we shot the first ten minutes of it at the school. It took us a few years after that to get the film finished because it's all expensive. The film was called BLADE WARRIOR (2001).  The film is currently out of circulation and I may bring it back once I redesign the sound.

When you created your own persona as an actor in your films, what other actors were you thinking of? 
I'd have to say Toshiro Mifune, who is one of my deepest heroes. That cool, calm, anti-hero type.

How much is there of you in your screen persona? 
It's pretty close to me, except I am much funnier! If you put me in a sparring match, I am the guy I am onscreen. I keep fighting until my opponent submits.

Is it important to you to have strong roles for women in your films? 
In my other films, I guess I didn't see it as important at the time, but on WEAPON OF CHOICE I made a conscious choice to have strong female characters like Jaime, played by Kelly Lou Dennis, and Ash, played by Katherine Celio. I hoped it would make females at home feel empowered and want to fight like them.

Do you like to have ensemble casts? You don't overly dominate your films like some action stars do. 
Yes, it was important for me to tell a story involving multiple characters who developed during the course of the film, and I enjoy sharing the films with other actors.

Are there any particular action-oriented stars you'd like to collaborate with? 
Gina Carano would be great, as would Ronda Rousey, and guys like Michael Jai White and Scott Atkins. I'd love to work with Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren too.

What are the main challenges of making your films independently? 
Apart from getting enough money, it's getting the right actors and getting the films to the right audience, to the people who would really enjoy them. You just have to focus on delivering the goods each time and make the best film you can with the money you have.

Was the finale to your latest film, WEAPON OF CHOICE, a conscious homage to GAME OF DEATH (1978)?
Yes it was, except in place of a five-storey tower we had a warehouse. I liked the idea of the opponents getting stronger and stronger the further I made my way through the warehouse. I also wanted to bring in fighters with different kinds of fighting styles, and build up the climax to the end fight with two master swordsmen.

What mix of actors and martial artists did you use in the fight scenes? 
The only actors that I used in the fight scenes were Katherine Celio and Kelly Lou Dennis. They trained for four months. It's generally really tough to train an actor because you would have to have a body double. Most of the fighters were local martial artists. 

As a martial artist you are continually setting yourself new goals. What are your goals as a filmmaker? 
I feel like I'm learning all the time, and getting better. My goal is to have higher budgets, more shoot days, have more well-laid out and detailed fight scenes and so on. 

What kind of films do you like to watch? 
I pretty much like everything but I love action films obviously. Recently I loved the two JOHN WICK films. I love Beat Takeshi's crime films and the Korean crime dramas. I love the new Indonesian crime films, and French films. They aren't formulaic, and they are so original. 

Kang's website.  

FIST 2 FIST 2: WEAPON OF CHOICE is available digitally and on DVD through Amazon, I-Tunes, Google, Vudu and XBox, and will be premiering on The Fight Channel in the UK in the summer. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.