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Hand Of Death (1976, Hong Kong)

08/04/2012

Director: John Woo          Starring: Tao-liang Tan, James Tien, Wei Yang, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung

There’s a line of argument that pushing a reissue of an old film on DVD with an emphasis on an early appearance in a relatively minor role by a subsequently massive star (in this case Jackie Chan)  is a little bit disingenuous. At the very least it opens the film up to the possibility of wildly mismanaged expectations as recent converts to the “star” of the film eagerly purchase it, anticipating more of the comedy kung fu antics they have come to know and love, only to be disappointed by the reality of the movie. In the case of Hand Of Death however I for one am perfectly prepared to forgive this particular marketing foible on the grounds that it means a lot more people will end up watching the film than probably would otherwise. Personally, I was more interested in the film as an early example of the work of one of my all time heroes of cinema, legendary Hong Kong action director John Woo, a man whose career pre Heroes Shed No Tears has always been just slightly out of my reach.

Set during the Manchu purging of the Shaolin temples, a lone Shaolin disciple Yun Fei (Tao-Liang Tan) sets out on a quest of vengeance, hoping to bring Shaolin traitor Shih Shao-Feng (James Tien) to justice for his betrayal of the abbott and massacre of his fellow disciples. On his journey he finds himself in the company of two like minded fellows, Tang Feng (Jackie Chan) and the mysterious, sword wielding “Wanderer”(Wei Yang) who also have cause to seek revenge on Shao-Feng. They join forces to take on Shao-Feng and his equally vile authorities (led by Sammo Hung) with spectacular results.

One of Woo’s earliest films, Hand Of Death bears many of the hallmarks which characterise his entire career’s work, the emphasise being on the themes of friendship, loyalty and betrayal and exquisitely choreographed and photographed action. What’s interesting for me as a fan of the director is his approach to action oriented, in the main, around hand to hand combat rather than the bullet strewn balletic set pieces for which he is better known. The martial arts on show here are superb, a broad mixture of styles with the expected level of esoteric animal references you would expect from a kung fu movie of this era and tightly coreographed and executed in exciting fight scenes. Tao-Liang’s fights are particularly impressive, his final showdown with James Tien proving to be (as it should be) the highlight of the movie, a fight scene brimming with tension and excitement.

Here’s where some of the marketing misdirection onto Jackie Chan could cause some people problems though. While his fight scenes and martial displays in this film are excellent, stylistically they are a million miles away from the sort of action he has become famous for in his own movies. Personally, I really enjoyed getting to see him fight in a more serious way in this film but if people have decided to watch it on the assumption that they are going to get ninety minutes of Chan’s trademark acrobatic, comedy-action theatrics they are going to be disappointed. It’s the danger of unfulfilled expectations that are the problem as Chan’s performance in Hand Of Death is excellent and, ironically given the age of the film, utterly refreshing in the wake of the nonsense he’s been involved with in America for so long. It actually made me wish he would do more “serious” kung fu movies (although current evidence such as The Shinjuku Incident and Shaolin would suggest he is heading in this direction) without the slapstick comedy and acrobatic distractions.

On top of the brilliant action, the other hallmarks of great old school kung fu movies are all there. Witness the awesome training montage where Yun Fei develops a new fighting style to combat Shao-Feng’s “Deadly White Crane Arms” style, bask in the glory of the seventies Far Eastern inflected funk score courtesy of Joseph Koo (who would work with Woo later on A Better Tomorrow and its sequel) and marvel at the visual beauty of this period action masterpiece. Here’s yet another example of a Cine Asia/Hong Kong Legends reissue that is in excellent shape, the vibrancy of the print making for a lovely viewing experience.

Hand of Death is the sort of film I would describe as utterly essential for fans of kung fu movies or John Woo or both. On this evidence, Woo arrived on the scene more or less fully formed as an action director, this film being as potent as anything he produced later on and a hundred times better than anything he made in Hollywood and it has the added bonus of featuring some giants of the genre, even if some of them aren’t as prominent as the marketing might suggest.

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