Hand of Death Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: May 9, 2023
Audio: Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono and 5.1 Remix; Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo; English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono and 5.1 DVD Remix
Run Time: 97:07
Director: John Woo
After a traitor of the Shaolin temple, Shih Shao-Feng (James Tien), has eliminated thousands of his former colleagues in exchange for power from the Manchus under the Qing dynasty, a surviving master of Shaolin, Yun Fei (Tan Tao-Liang), is tasked with the mission of bringing Shih to justice. In order to defeat Shih's overwhelmingly large army led by the ruthless Tu Qing (Sammo Hung), Yun Fei will need to team up with a skilled blacksmith (Jackie Chan) and a reluctant swordsman to beat the odds and avenge his fallen brothers. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
In the mid-’80s, a frustrated filmmaker named John Woo Yu-Sen teamed up with Hong Kong New Wave leader Tsui Hark to make a long-gestating action epic dubbed A Better Tomorrow (1986). A Better Tomorrow combined Chang Cheh’s aging heroic bloodshed traditions with New Wave style crime and replaced swords and fists with double-fisted handguns. Its melodrama and balletic, Sam Peckinpah-esque bloodshed struck a chord, it became an unexpected hit, and helped to develop a subgenre known by stateside critics as ‘gun-fu,’ redefining Woo’s career and eventually leading him to big-budget Hollywood success. Before A Better Tomorrow brought about a, erm…better tomorrow, Woo was a contract player for Golden Harvest as the studio began to overtake Shaw Bros. as the industry leader (before he graduated to the director’s seat, he also acted as assistant for Shaw releases). Many of these films have been forgotten by all but the most ardent fans, which is sometimes the way Woo himself would prefer it, since he ended the period in self-imposed exile from filmmaking. Two movies that stand out from this pre-Better Tomorrow era* of are the heroic bloodshed wuxia film, Last Hurrah for Chivalry, which was not a hit upon release, but has since been reevaluated as a classic, and Hand of Death (aka: Countdown in Kung Fu, 1976), which saw the director paired with up-and-coming choreographers/stars Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Hand of Death is a pretty standard mid-’70s martial arts movie, one which combines the weapons work of earlier wuxia flicks with Bruce Lee’s bloody fisticuffs. The choreography itself is hit and miss, appearing lethargic in early scenes compared to Lee’s films and other early Golden Harvest movies, like Huang Feng’s Lady Whirlwind (aka: Lady Hurricane and Deep Thrust, 1972). Still, it picks up during the last act and Woo’s use of camera movement, cutting, and occasional slow motion inserts are all an indication of the type of control and style he’d continue developing into the following decade. The script, written by Woo himself, is also a pretty generic Manchu vs. Shaolin riff (notably, it was released before many of the Lau Kar-leung Shaw Bros. movies it most resembles), but it does explore concepts like martial brotherhood and chivalric bloodshed that would become director trademarks after Better Tomorrow changed the trajectory of his career. It also borrows from various Hollywood and Italian western storytelling ideas, which fits the kind of genre synthesis that Woo brought to future classics, like Hard Boiled (1992).
Woo had previously worked with Chan on his solo directorial debut, The Young Dragons (1974), where Chan worked as choreographer, and Hung had a part in The Dragon Tamers (1975). But, even in supporting roles, there’s still something really special about all three filmmakers teaming up during this early, pre-fame point in their careers. Those hoping to witness the seeds of either performer’s future superstardom will probably be disappointed, though. Hung and Chan toss in a couple of amusing pratfalls and Hung wears comically large buck teeth, but they’re mostly along for the ride. The lead is South Korean actor Tan Tao-liang, working under the pseudonym Doran Tan – a genuine martial artist who gained a measure of fame after appearing in Hand of Death (his eighth film). Chan plays a member of the posse Tan gathers, alongside Yang Wei and Woo himself. The main villain is James Tien from the Bruce Lee breakthrough The Big Boss (directed by Wei Lo & Chia-Hsiang Wu, 1971), who became a Chan and Hung regular, appearing in everything from Chen Chi-Hwa’s Half Loaf of Kung Fu (1978) to Hung and Corey Yuen’s Dragons Forever (1988).
* Woo’s brutal military mercenary movie, Heroes Shed No Tears, was actually filmed as The Sunset Warrior before A Better Tomorrow, but not released until that film was a hit in 1986.
Heroism and Defiance: Films of John Woo and Ringo Lam by Matthew Cheng, from The Essence of Entertainment: Cinema City’s Glory Days (Hong Kong Film Archive, 2016)
From Wuxia to Comedy: Lo Wei and John Woo’s Early Works by Matthew Cheng, from Golden Harvest: Leading Change in Changing Times (Hong Kong Film Archive, 2013)
Hand of Death isn’t a super popular entry in Woo, Chan, or Hung’s filmographies, but it has had plenty of stateside home video releases, including a Tae Seng VHS tape and an anamorphic DVD from Twentieth Century Fox. The first Blu-ray was available from Splendid Films in Germany in 2015, followed by a 2019 release from Eureka in the UK. Arrow’s North American HD debut is presented in 1080p, 2.35:1, and was taken from a 2K restoration of the original film elements supplied directly by Fortune Star. I assume all three Blu-rays feature the same basic transfer and, based on screencaps I found floating around the internet, the Eureka and Arrow discs feature nearly identical color grading. The image quality is also in keeping with other transfers Arrow has recycled from Fortune Star sources, which is good news, because they’ve all looked pretty good so far. Woo and cinematographer Liang Yung-chi take a very typical early-stage Golden Harvest approach by shooting a lot of the film outdoors and keeping the palette simple. Golden Harvest movies also tended to mute their production design compared to Shaw Bros., but there are still some flashy red and blue costumes to give your set a bit of a workout.
Like most of these Arrow and 88 Films Golden Harvest releases, Hand of Death comes fitted with several audio options. These include original Mandarin and the original English dub in 2.0 mono, Cantonese 2.0 stereo, as well as 5.1 options in Mandarin or a very bad English re-dub recorded for the old DVD, all presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. I’d personally recommend the Mandarin or English mono mixes, depending on your tolerance for dub tracks, because one is the ‘original’ and the other is in the spirit of the ‘original,’ including echo/reverb effects during narration. The English track’s main drawback is that it is notably tinnier and thinner than the Cantonese dub, which has surprising clarity at high volume levels, especially where Joseph Koo’s funky score is concerned. You’d think the stereo and 5.1 upgrade would deepen the musical effect, but the remixes lack the punch of the mono tracks.
Commentary with Frank Djeng and Michael Worth – The always reliable team of Djeng, a NY Asian Film Festival programmer, and martial artist/filmmaker/critic Worth delivers another info-packed commentary that covers the making-of and release of the film, the careers of the cast & crew, Korean shooting locations, and Woo’s inspirations (they note a lot of samurai movie parallels), his favorite themes, and the development of his style.
From Hong Kong to Hollywood (22:52, SD) – This archival featurette (it seems to have coincided with the release of Mission: Impossible II, given how often it’s mentioned) takes a look at Woo's early career in martial arts films and includes interviews with the man himself, actor Chow Yun-fat, and cinematographer Peter Pau.
A Cool Conversation with Tan Tao-Liang (29:50, HD) – The star spoke with Worth in the late ‘90s about his career as a martial arts teacher in Taiwan and his hectic stint as an actor. This featurette includes a newly filmed introduction from Worth.
Interview with Sammo Hung (5:44, SD) – Another archival interview, this time with Hung, who briefly discusses working as action choreographer on Hand of Death.
Alternate Countdown to Kung Fu credits (5:03, HD)
Mandarin and English language trailers
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