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A region 2 DVD review of HAND OF DEATH by Slarek
 

In kung-fu movies, there are few crimes more heinous than betraying the Shaolin temple in which you trained, unless it's killing your master and wiping out his pupils. One thing's for sure, you'll never get them all, and one will always survive and dedicate the rest of his life to hunting you down and opening an industrial sized can of whoop-ass on you.

Such is the set-up for Hand of Death – aka Countdown in Kung Fu, aka Shao Lin Men – in which pure-of-heart Yun Fei is charged with the dual task of aiding a courier named Zhang Yi, who is carrying a map that will aid forces rebelling against the repressive Qing government, and hunting down Shih Shao Feng, the ex-pupil responsible killing just about everyone associated with the Shaolin teachings. It won't be easy. Despite Yun Fei's finely developed skills, Shih Shao Feng has developed a fighting technique known as Deadly White Crane Fist and has surrounded himself with a group of fearsome warriors of varying fighting styles known as the Eight Tigers.

Yun Fei's quest takes him into an area known as the Foreign Zone, which he quickly discovers is a region hostile to nosey people and Shaolin priests alike. Here he meets up with Tan Feng, a simple woodsman with a skill for honing weaponry and spear fighting and who harbours a personal grudge against two of Shih Shao Feng's cronies for killing his brother.

The plot to this point holds no surprises, at least for anyone with even a passing knowledge of a genre in which narrative invention is a rare and peculiar thing. The performances, however, are surprisingly and pleasingly low key, the initial meeting of Yun Fei and Tan Feng an almost wordless encounter in which an understanding is reached through an exchange of looks and telling facial expressions. This is all the more impressive when you consider that Feng is played by a young Jackie Chan, who turns in here what must rank as one of the most underplayed performances of his career.

The narrative trips along in familiar fashion, with Yun Fei given a pounding by Shih Shao Feng and the Eight Tigers, then freed from torture by Tan and united with two more Shaolin students and a swordsman with a past who is known as The Wanderer (although he's credited in the cast list as 'Zorro'). Yun Fei trains up and develops a Tiger Claw move that just might work against the Deadly White Crane Fist, while Tan Feng sets about reforging The Wanderer's sword and making sturdy weapons for himself and Yun Fei. That it's all building to a final confrontation with Shih Shao Feng and his boys is a given – what does catch you out is how early it kicks off, with the entire final third of the film devoted to a series of extended and energetically staged battles with a variety of weapons, including spears, swords, feet and fists.

The cast is certainly a major draw here, with Yun Fei played by Tan Tio-Liang, aka 'Flash Legs', and a support cast that features Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, James Tien and Yeun Biao. Adding to the mix is a director named Wu Yu-Sheng, better known to Hong Kong cinema aficionados as John Woo. This is Woo before the recognisable John Woo style was even half formed, but in the handling of the performers and some of the smarter camera angles, he still manages to stamp a degree of individuality on the Golden Harvest house style (he also has an acting role as Scholar Cheung.).

Sammo Hung's fight choreography varies a little at first – there is a bit too much rehearsal kung-fu in the opening assault – but things really pick up when Chan, Hung, Biao and Swordsman Paul Chang get to work, and the final half-hour of almost unbroken action should be enough to put a satisfied smile on the face of any true genre fan. Although not packing quite the eye-opening wallop that the combined force of much talent might lead you to expect, Hand of Death is still a solid and engaging genre piece, uncharacteristically (and pleasingly) restrained in its dramatic elements but delivering the martial arts goods with energy and style.

sound and vision

This is one of the first of two titles released under Hong Kong Legends' new 'Ultrabit' label (the other is Jackie Chan's 1979 directoral debut Fearless Hyena). The transfer certainly holds true to its promise – dipping in regularly, I rarely saw the bit rate drop below 9.5 and it frequently pips at 10, the maximum possible. The picture quality certainly reflects this, at least in shots of bright exteriors, where the colours are rich without over-saturation and the detail level is very impressive, although this has been achieved in part through some visible edge enhancement. Night scenes fare slightly less well. Detail is still very good, but the contrast sometimes greys out a bit with with black levels and shadow detail lost. There's also the odd example of highlights whiting out in the brighter scenes, but there's hardly a dust spot in sight, and only the odd flicker of repaired damage. On the whole, it's a very fine transfer for a film of its age and origin. Whether it offers a significant step up for Hong Kong Legends' already high standards is another matter, and a cynical person might just suggest that the 'Ultrabit' label might be used primarily for titles that have no extra features, as you could argue that there simply is no room for them at this stonkingly high bit rate.

The original Mandarin mono 2.0 track is joined by a Mandarin 5.1 surround remix and a 5.1 English dub. All tracks show their age in terms of their dynamic range and a slight hiss hovering in the background, but the separation on the 5.1 remix is well done without messing up the integrity of the original. The English track is comical stuff, with what sounds like English voice artists attempting to fake gruff American accents of no specific region.

extra features

At first glance there's nothing on offer – there's no button to press for Special Features on the main menu, the space taken up on the disc by the Ultrabit transfer no doubt an argument for their non-inclusion. But nip into the Languages section and sitting at the bottom you'll find the word 'Commentary'. No information on who it's by, but you select it anyway and you get:

Bey Logan Commentary
As fans will know, Bey Logan and Hong Kong Legends some time ago parted company, leaving a hole that no-one has yet manged to satisfactorily fill. To have a release that includes a commentary by Logan seems reason for celebration, so quite why it's stuck away unannounced in the languages section is beyond me (a colleague suggested it was the DVD extras equivalent of being miffed at Logan for leaving – he may be right). It seems unlikely that Logan has temporarily rejoined HKL and probable that this was recorded before his departure – either way it's well up to his usual high standards, crammed with information about the actors, the technical details and the fighting styles used, sprinkled with the usual interesting collection of insider anecdotes. A welcome and essential companion to the film.

There are also the usual collection of Trailers for other HKL releases.

summary

Another worthwhile rediscovery by Hong Kong Legends, gorgeously cleaned up and impressively transferred, and having the extra bonus of a Bey Logan commentary. It may be one for the martial arts fans only, but to them it comes recommended, in part for the fascination of seeing that cast united with that director, and all so early in their careers.

Hand of Death

Hong Kong 1976
93 mins
director
John Woo
starring
Tan Tao-liang
James Tien
Jackie Chan
Sammo Hung
Paul Chang

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
Mandarin
subtitles .
English
extras
Bey Logan Commentary
Trailers
distributor
Hong Kong Legends
release date
15 January 2007
review posted
14 January 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews