PLOT: In order to improve her skills, a struggling martial arts student must dedicate her time to either her vapid booze-hound friends and her discouraging booze-hound mother, or a pizza delivery guy she hit with her car and may or may not contact her insurance company.
Director: Sam Um
Writer: Sam Um
Cast: Stacy Lundgren, C.K. Kim, M.G. Lee, Mark Kay, Stephen Wong, Bill Johnson
The act of tape scavenging -- or whatever VHS approximation on cratedigging the kids are calling it -- has changed dramatically over the past two decades. In the winter of 1994, I went into my local Blockbuster Video with a paper gift certificate and took a chance on a mysterious, early Jean Claude Van Damme movie. To say nothing of its poor acting and plentiful continuity errors, it ignited a life-long obsession with low-budget American chopsocky films and the joys of viewing those films with friends.
In the spring of 2015, I traveled along a dirt road in the northeastern U.S. to comb over shelves in a massive shed full of used VHS tapes in the hopes of finding some gems. I purchased, in cash, a similarly unfamiliar movie in the hopes that it would invigorate a life-long obsession with low-budget American chopsocky films. That film was 1992’s Fight for Honor (aka Kickboxer Kid), which instantly earned the distinction of the most poorly documented film I’ve ever watched and reviewed.
Perhaps one of the reasons for its relative obscurity is its Texas origins. We’ve seen plenty of movies produced and based in California, New York, Seattle, the Philippines, and even Torontoyork City! These places were hotbeds for chopsocky activity. Austin, Texas, however, is known more for its lively music scene and DoubleDave’s Pizza than its martial arts film history. Add in a cast and crew of first-timers and an equally obscure distributor (York Entertainment) and you might see why it's been relegated to the VHS tape barns of history.
Crystal (Lundgren) is a struggling taekwondo student. Her dedication is mocked by her friends and maligned by her mother. Her dojang master (Johnson) emphasizes competition victories over personal growth and self-esteem, which only bruises her ego more. Worse yet, a meathead classmate (Kay) sexually harasses her on the regular.
Min-Suk (Kim) is a struggling pizza delivery boy who’s learning taekwondo from his grandfather at home. His chosen vehicle, a bicycle, is mocked by his boss at DoubleDave’s. His grandfather emphasizes personal growth and self-esteem over competition victories. Worse yet, Crystal hits him with her sports car while he’s out on a route, destroying his pizzas, his bike, and any chance he had at keeping his job. When Crystal meets Min-Suk’s grandfather after driving him home, she learns of his taekwondo mastery and their ongoing training. Citing her disappointment in her dojang’s methods, she tries to convince the wise elder to take her on as a student. Initially resistant, he eventually relents, which pisses off Min-Suk, because SHE HIT HIM WITH HER FUCKING SPORTS CAR.
Odd, yet fitting that a clumsy traffic accident would bring these two people together. Despite their grievances, insecurities, and weaknesses, they’re forced to train side by side. And by train, I mean that they run on land, try to catch fish bare-handed in a river, and also run in the river. And break the occasional board. But mostly running. What will the rewards be for these efforts? Renewed sense of self? Free, awesome Korean food? Perhaps even victories in the upcoming state-wide taekwondo competition? Logic would dictate that they’d probably just get better at running, but it could be all of these things.
I didn’t quite know what to make of this one. Outside of the grandfather’s scrum with some local drunk jerks, and Min-Suk’s wet and wild rumble with the taekwon-douchebags from Crystal’s class, there’s not much action here. The focus, similar to College Kickboxers, is instead on various training methods. When executed well, these sorts of scenes can provide a visual call-back when the protagonist faces difficulty in physical conflicts later on. Need to block an aggressive fighter? Lean on the ol’ paint-the-fence training. Mystery powder got your vision blurry? Rely on lessons in blindfolded defensive tactics and table-setting. Unfortunately, none of the training methods here are logically recalled during the tournament fight scenes during the film’s climax. Had there been a scene where the arena was under attack from a giant blob, and the pair quickly ran to safety, it would have tied the bow perfectly.
While this was the only film to director Sam Um’s credit, it is undoubtedly his best. That might seem like a backhanded compliment, but I would never backhand him because he’s a taekwondo master. He trained Willie Nelson to his first-degree black belt. How many country music legends have you trained? How many films have you directed? If your answer to both of those questions is “zero,” then Sam Um is beating you at life. While there’s not a lot of technique in this film, you have to appreciate that Um was in charge of getting a lot of non-actors to act. Of particular note is M.G. Lee, who struggled mightily with the lion’s share of dialogue despite English being his second language. Underscoring the onscreen drama is a dark, evocative score akin to Tangerine Dream’s work on 1978’s Sorcerer. Just kidding -- there’s lots of generic drum tracks with synthesized shakuhachi noises. It sounds like Keyboard Cat doing a cover of Paul Hertzog’s Kickboxer soundtrack.
Last but not least, we need to talk about Crystal’s mom, played by Shannon Sedwick. She stands out as the worst cinematic mom since Kirsten’s Mother from 1989’s Elves (a woman who drowned her daughter’s cat in a toilet). She hands over her credit card to Crystal’s friends, constantly rags on her daughter for pursuing martial arts, and has a weird obsession with her daughter’s friend, Dirk, an insufferable weenie of epic proportions. Where’s the father? Why is she day-drinking in a jacuzzi? Her childrearing is so terrible that I have no doubt that the offspring of Crystal’s mother and Jason Stillwell’s father from No Retreat, No Surrender would have been one of America’s most prolific serial killers. Bad chopsocky parenting up in this movie, y’all.
This is not the sort of movie for which viewers are going to pull the “lost gem” card on the scale of a Miami Connection or Undefeatable. Instead, it’s a charming if amateurish critique of the 1980s and 90s suburban McDojo craze and meathead misogyny. I’ll fault it some for leaning on the grandfather's Magical Asian stereotype, but fans of meager production values and non-actor acting may find it enjoyable.