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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Hand of Death (1976) review

HAND OF DEATH (1975; released 1976) aka COUNTDOWN IN KUNG FU

Tan Tao Liang (Yun Fei), James Tien (Shi Shao Feng), Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan (Little Tan), Yang Wai ('Zorro' Jen Lei Lung), John Woo (Chang I), Wilson Tong, Yuen Wah, Chiang Sheng, Lu Feng, Yuen Biao

Directed By Wu Yu Sheng (John Woo)

Yun Fei, a highly skilled Shaolin fighter, is selected for an important mission. He must find a Chinese patriot named Chang I who has a map detailing Qing forces and the locations of their bases. Chang is scheduled to meet up with other patriots to discuss plans of attack. The villainous Shi Shao Feng plans to intercept Chang before he reaches his secret rendezvous. Yun, along with the help of a lowly blacksmith and a disgraced swordsman, face Shi and his skilled fighters in a showdown in an effort to make sure Chang reaches his destination.

John Woo (as Wu Yu Sheng) directs this average kung fu adventure that borrows liberally from Chang Cheh's Shaolin films being produced in Taiwan at the time. It's not a complete copy though, but similarities are easily noticeable to Chang Cheh's series especially FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1975). There's also the color filters signifying a flashback sequence; a technique Cheh experimented with for a number of films in the mid 1970's. There's really nothing here that would become a part of Woo's later style. It's just a standard kung fu picture. Towards the end, though, the film shows Cheh's influence on Woo. Not surprising since Woo was Cheh's assistant on several films at Shaw Brothers studio before Raymond Chow stole him away; much like he did several other talents at Shaw's that became entranced of the Hollywood-like benefits on offer at Golden Harvest.

If nothing else, COUNTDOWN IN KUNG FU (1976) is notable for the number of talent before the camera. Super-kicker Tan Tao Liang is the main star and gets to demonstrate some great kicks. His best scenes don't come until the finale. He and Sammo have a great fight. Also, his duel with James Tien is a nice capper to the film. Oddly, some of the fights come off more like rehearsal footage while other fights are captured beautifully. Tan wasn't really that great of an actor but he had screen presence based purely off his fighting ability. His expression seldom changed much like Shaw star, Chi Kuan Chun who emoted even less but also had lots of screen presence.

The film itself is seriously hindered by a weak villain played by James Tien Chun. For me, he is better suited to playing scholarly characters or teachers but has neither the charisma nor the ability to be a believable screen fighter. He almost seems unsure of himself during his fight scenes save for the last one where his moves come off a bit more fluid. His role as Jackie Chan's grandfather in THE FEARLESS HYENA (1979) suited his demeanor; an imposing and intimidating bad guy does not. Sammo Hung handled the choreography and it's fine. Hung wears an odd buck teeth appliance that gives him a goofy look that slightly takes away from his formidable bad guy persona.

Jackie Chan features in an early supporting role as the anxious for revenge blacksmith, Little Tan. Although I am in no way a Jackie Chan fan (save for a few of his early movies), he does display a lot of verve and enthusiasm in his fight scenes. Woo gives him a less gory version of a Chang Cheh death during the finale. This was also before his eye operation making him appear more Anglo in appearance. What's most distressing about this DVD presentation is that Chan is featured prominently on the cover in front of Tan Tao Liang, the films star. Tan is behind him. I find it insulting but understandable considering Chan's popularity.

This Deltamac DVD has both Mandarin and (original) English dubbed versions. The ever-so-coveted English dub version is not mentioned on the box anywhere but is a selection on the menu or by using your DVD remote control. Also, the English dubbed track goes out of sync briefly during the final moments of the Tan/Sammo fight. A couple spots have no sound effects. This doesn't occur on the Mandarin version. The subtitles have numerous grammatical errors but this is nothing new for Chinese movies with English subs. The 2:35:1 widescreen picture quality is very good with minimal print damage. Aside from a few scenes, colors are generally strong. It would appear some form of restoration was performed on the movie. If not, the film was in amazing condition.

Again, outside of the cast on hand, there's nothing overly special about the movie. There is one very nice innovation here-- during the scene where Jen Lei Lung (called Zorro in the dubbing and on the subs) is training with his sword, he sees himself in the blade followed by his lover and the main villain, Shi. This shot also displays a beautiful composition of the mountains behind him. The last twenty minutes is the main battle with the three heroes battling Shi's eight bodyguards, then his two second in command officers and finally, Shi himself.

Fans of Tan Tao Liang will enjoy seeing him in this Golden Harvest production. The production values don't look much better than the average indy film but the locations are nice. There's a couple good shots of mountains in the background during some of the dialog scenes. The repetitive 'Wa Wa' 70's music suits the film perfectly implanting it firmly in the 42nd street sleaze pit theater mode. The main theme that is played over top the training scenes is quite catchy. Shaw Brothers fans will get a brief kick out of seeing future Venom actors, Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng at the beginning. The two are both killed by Sammo Hung's character. Wilson Tong also fights briefly as a fighter protecting the temple Abbott. A nice presentation on this Chinese DVD and for the price, a must for kung fu fans.

This review is representative of the Deltamac DVD from Taiwan.

DVD availability: Deltamac (Region 0; Taiwan) Fox (Region 1; disc has new dub but original mandarin track)

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