Hong Kong Digital is a recurring series of movie reviews by John Charles -- associate editor / film reviewer for Video Watchdog magazine and the author of The Hong Kong Filmography.
Hand Of Death
Director John Woo Yu-sen began his career with some period kung fu films and this particular one represents the only time to date that he has worked with Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung Kam-po, unless one includes the uncredited behind-the-scenes work Woo reportedly did on Chans Directors Guild benefit picture, TWIN DRAGONS.
Tan Tao-liang. Image courtesy Mega Star.
The real star of the movie, however, is Taiwanese super kicker Tan Tao-liang, who many will remember from his impressive turns in Lee Tso-nams THE HOT, THE COOL AND THE VICIOUS and THE INVINCIBLE KUNG FU LEGS (aka THE LEG FIGHTERS). Accomplished Shaolin fighter Yun Fei (Tan) is ordered to bring back the head of Goose Fist master Shih Shao-feng (James Tien Chun), a renegade responsible for the demise of many Shaolin disciples, who enjoys protection from eight deadly bodyguards. Adding further to the risk is the fact Shih is also in league with Manchu officer Tu Ching (Hung, sporting a ridiculous set of novelty teeth), a powerful fighter in his own right.
Sammo Hung. Image courtesy Mega Star.
Along the way, Yun encounters firewood delivery man Tan (Chan, billed as Chen Yuan-long), who reminds him of the dangers that lie ahead, something Yun learns for himself when his ploy to infiltrate Shih's band fails. Tan (whose brother was murdered by Shih's men some time earlier) is able to save Yun's life and reveals his previously hidden prowess with a spear. The pair successfully enlist the aid of Zorro (Yeung Wei), a feared swordsman who became an apathetic alcoholic after accidentally killing a beautiful prostitute in an altercation brought about by Tu. Joined by two more Shaolin men, the trio practice relentlessly in preparation for a final showdown with Shih and his troops.
John Woo (left) and Yeung Wei (right).
Woo (who also has a supporting role as a Shaolin ally in possession of a map the Manchus dearly want) was still learning his craft at this stage, so do not expect the grace and technical polish that has since become his trademark (for example, he breaks the most basic rule of day-for-night photography by showing the sky in the background of almost every set-up). That said, HAND OF DEATH is still above the norm and Woo's apprenticeship with Chang Cheh can certainly be felt in the relationships between the various men here (and, of course, by the fact that the precious few women barely make an impression, outside of a visual one). The martial arts (choreographed by Hung) are terrible in the opening battle, with the editor desperately knocking out frames to speed up the combatants. Fortunately, they improve considerably from that point onwards and Tan, Chan, and Hung are all given their moments to shine. Tien has always been a better actor than a martial artist and, while he is effectively malevolent, few will buy the sequence in which he defeats the vastly superior Tan using some exceedingly slow movements. The climactic duel between the two is better staged, thankfully, and genuinely exhilarating. Yuen Wah (sans moustache), Yuen Biao, and Wilson Tong Wai-shing can be glimpsed among the various background fighters.
James Tien Chun. Image courtesy Mega Star.
Chen Yuan-long aka Jackie Chan. Image courtesy Mega Star.