ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Last Hurrah for Chivalry & Hand of Death: Two Films by John Woo Blu Ray (Eureka!)
Eureka’s boxed set brings together two of director John Woo’s early Hong Kong efforts. In contrast to the gunfight-laden later films for which he would become internationally-renowned, both of them belong to the wuxia genre of period martial arts adventures. They were produced by the legendary Golden Harvest Company.
Watch a trailer:
Hand of Death (1976)
This one is set during China’s Qing Dynasty, when the Shaolin are threatened by a rebel group led by the villainous Shih Shao-Feng (James Tien). A vengeful disciple named Yun Fei (Tao-Liang Tan) is sent on a mission to take him down. However, even his considerable skills prove to be no match for Shih and his followers. He is forced to retreat and gain the help of a motley selection of warriors whom he happens to meet along the way.
Hand of Death is less notable as a movie in its own right than it is for the fact that it features an array of talents who would go on to become some of the brightest lights of Hong Kong action cinema. Not only does it feature John Woo in his capacity as a writer, director and actor, but also the so-called “Three Brothers”/“Three Dragons”: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. While Yuen’s appearance is limited to a small role as one of Shih’s followers who meets with an unfortunate fate, Jackie has a considerably larger part as one of the characters who helps out our hero, as does Sammo who plays Shih’s main henchman.
It’s not that Hand of Death is bad for what it is - it’s just that it’s fairly unremarkable considering the calibre of those involved. The plot is very routine stuff. The action scenes are well enough choreographed but surprisingly slow-moving (by Hong Kong standards) and feature barely a trace of the graceful slo-mo and exhilarating splatter which would become Woo’s signature in later years. Jackie, Sammo and Yuen are saddled with mediocre roles (the fake teeth which Sammo wears throughout are particularly ridiculous) that don’t avail them with any opportunities to display their subsequent charming camaraderie or effortless knack for marrying action with comedy.
On a more positive note, it’s a handsome-looking film. In contrast to the usual contemporary Shaw Brothers-style approach of shooting almost everything on colourful but cramped soundstages, most of this one was filmed outdoors, allowing for some great use of expansive, verdant landscapes.
Runtime: 96 mins
Dir: John Woo
Script: John Woo
Starring: Tao-Liang Tan, James Tien, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yang Wei, Chu Ching, John Woo, Yuen Biao
Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)
This is another period adventure set in China’s distant past. It features Kong Lau as Kao Pun, a wealthy man who thirsts for revenge after his family’s home is attacked by the villainous Pak Chun-Tong (Hoi Sang Lee) who kills several of his loved ones in the process. He sets about hiring two mercenaries - Chang Saam (Pai Wei) and Tsing Yi (Damian Lau) - in order to take him down. However, the road there is one strewn with bloodshed and betrayal in equal measure.
While, on balance, Last Hurrah for Chivalry is a definite step up from Hand of Death, it’s not without its flaws either. Of course, that’s not to say that it isn’t a lot of action-filled fun. There’s more of a sense of those John Woo stylistic tics here in the graceful choreography, wide angle lens shots, inspired editing and overall operatic tone. The fights scenes are plentiful and often very good indeed, with the ones taking place within an iron cage and a candle-filled inner sanctum being particularly memorable.
However, whereas the storyline in Hand of Death felt excessively routine and predictable, this one feels overly convoluted and cluttered with subplots. Moreover, unlike the previous film, most of it takes place on very obvious soundstages, thus losing points in terms of evoking an authentic atmosphere.
Runtime: 106 mins
Dir: John Woo
Script: John Woo
Starring: Pai Wei, Damian Lau, Kong Lau, Hark-On Fung, Hoi Sang Lee
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
These both look pretty damn great with some vivid swathes of colour and detail.
Both films contain audio commentaries by Mike Leeder, a film critic, casting director, producer and actor based in Hong Kong. There are also archival interviews with John Woo, trailers and a collector’s booklet with an essay by film writer Matthew Thrift (a contributor to Little White Lies, The Guardian and the BFI).
Neither of these films count amongst John Woo’s best but, nonetheless, are of some interest to Hong Kong cinema (especially wuxia) fans.
Hand of Death
Last Hurrah for Chivalry