(November 2019, NYC)– November 2019 marks the 30th Anniversary of the release of the martial arts classic film, “Best of the Best“. While released to mixed reviews and a soft box office this film, in retrospect, is still the most influential Taekwondo movie ever made. In fact, over the last 10 years, when interviewing Taekwondo practitioners, the film is still often sighted as the answer to “favorite martial arts movie”; coming second only to Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon“.
The film was the passion project of second generation Taekwondo practitioners, Phillip and Simon Rhee. Phillip Rhee‘s 1980 representation of the United States’ Taekwondo Team against the South Korean team in the championships of the Asia Games formed the basis of his screenplay for the film.
While the film is bathed in feel of 80’s cinema and the 80’s itself, it still holds up very well and is worth celebrating in this anniversary year.
What makes “Best of the Best” such an important Taekwondo film?
- While the film contains a confused mix of martial arts styles and terminology, Taekwondo is well represented. The film nicely highlights the beauty of Taekwondo’s foot work, kicks, and hand techniques. This is particularly true in the scenes featuring highlights of the training regimen of the Korean national team.
The film features prominent members of the Taekwondo community, including Phillip Rhee, who wrote, produced, and stars in the film, Simon Rhee, who was stunt coordinator and co-stars, and Master Hee Il Choi, a Taekwondo legend as the Korean Coach. While there have been a tremendous number of martial arts films made over the last 30 years, few US releases have so prominently featured members of the Taekwondo community is the leading roles. The fact that the characters are credible Taekwondo practitioners, and not “super-human” makes them digestible role models to inspire the practice of the beautiful art.
- The film is among the earliest representations of the globalization of Taekwondo. The film was crafted before Taekwondo was a sanctioned Olympic sport and before the worldwide explosion of Taekwondo practice in 192 countries around the world. It addresses the evolution of Taekwondo from being a sport and art dominated by the Korean peninsula to becoming the world’s most popular martial art. It subtly addresses the emergence of countries, like the United States, as credible practitioners of Korea’s traditional art. In this way, whether intentional or otherwise, the film in somewhat visionary.
- The film embodies the Taekwondo spirit. There is a campy nature to much of the film, and there are elements of the undisciplined nature of the US athletes that are, somewhat, hyperbolic and unpalatable However, these elements seem to be instruments used as contrast to make the dramatic ending and message of the film more clearly articulated. Taekwondo is more than a sport. It is a traditional martial art, embodying the co-existence of the mind and the body. The film reminds us that despite our love for competition in the Taekwondo combat arena, that Taekwondo is a still a martial art. That humanity and personal growth trump mere competitive victory in real Taekwondo study; this is what separates it from being merely a sport.
If you have never seen ‘Best of the Best” it is available on many of the major streaming platforms. I highly suggest you invest the time. For those who are familiar with the film, I suggest you revisit it this year in tribute to its 30th Anniversary.
For a look at Master Simon Rhee’s Life and Career listen to his interview with Taekwondo Life Magazine’s Marc Zirogiannis:
One thought on “Best of the Best Turns 30”
Just curious as to why “karate” was the word chosen for the USA Team. Karate is not Korean and definitely not Taekwondo. Karate means “empty hand” in Japan and is very much a Japan word even though they learned it from the styles of Okinawa. I heard an interview where Eric Roberts stated that they “would work out, go do the GOJU then start filming the scenes”. If that’s right…GOJU would be a perfect style to represent “KARATE” in the film making it very fitting to hear the words in the film, “You are part of the USA Karate TEAM”. Either way this is the greatest karate/taekwondo film that will ever be made.