Last Hurrah For Chivalry & Hand of Death: Two Films By John Woo Review
John Woo revolutionised action cinema with his stylised, hyper-kinetic films A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992). These phenomenal thrillers brought the Hong Kong director international acclaim and made a star of leading man Chow Yun Fat. Woo’s success didn’t just happen overnight and you would have to wind back at least a decade to see where his career started. An early stint working for Shaw Brothers in the early seventies found a young Woo diligently learning to be a master of his craft, working as assistant to prolific director Chang Cheh. A move to competitor Golden Harvest provided further benefits, with the aspiring director finding himself surrounded by other talent all hungry for success.
Hand of Death (aka Countdown in Kung-fu, 1976) was one of Woo’s early films whilst under contract at Golden Harvest - he’s credited here as Wu Yu-Sheng. It’s a straightforward Shaolin revenge movie, most notable for an early appearance by the so-called “Three Brothers” - future stars Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. The story starts as treacherous Shi Shao-Feng (moustache twitching James Tien) has murdered a number of the Shaolin brothers, so fearless Yun Fei (Dorian Tan) has been chosen to track him down and put an end to his tyranny. On his quest he’s joined by woodsman Tan Feng (a young Jackie Chan), who has a score to settle of his own. Sammo Hung appears in a rare villainous role - sporting absurd fake gnashers - as henchman Tu Ching, who must be defeated before they can take down Shao-Feng.
In terms of script and acting this is strictly by the numbers, offering very few surprises – and you are never too far away from a training montage. Lead actor Tan, who often went by the nickname “Flash Legs” due to his physical prowess, doesn’t show a great deal of charisma - you will certainly be wishing that co-star Chan had more screen time. Woo also gets an extended cameo as a scholar who carries vital information to use against the evil Manchu, his character awkwardly shoehorned into the narrative. Anyone who believes that directors should remain behind the camera, will be provided with some well-founded evidence here.
This is not a film where we would expect deep meaningful dialogue, the raison d'être are the fight scenes and these are all competently staged by Hung, doubling as choreographer. A number of fighting styles and varying weapons are incorporated to break the monotony. Some ideas, such as a battle on the beach, would be refined and used again in Woo’s later films, such as Heroes Shed No Tears (1986) and Mission Impossible 2 (2000). Even at this early stage, Woo is highly proficient at composing the widescreen frame, overcoming a clearly limited budget by setting the action against attractive scenery – adding considerable production value.
Much more ambitious in scope is Last Hurrah for Chivalry (AKA Hao xia, 1979), Woo’s entry in the “Wuxia” genre, paying homage to the Shaw Brothers, with an historical tale of gallantry. Chang San (Wei Pai) and Tsing Yi (Damian Lau) are master swordsmen hired by Kao Peng (Woo regular Lau Kong), who has been wounded and betrayed by the thoroughly nasty Pai Chung-Tang (a memorable Hoi Sang Lee). Before they can enter his fortress and exact revenge, our heroes must face up to a formidable army of warriors, including the deadly Pray (Fung Hak-on). Themes of honour and loyalty that would resurface many times in the director’s work are explored here. Tsing Yi is loved by a local woman who wishes he would just leave the bloodshed behind, yet he feels duty bound to complete the treacherous mission. Both men would, should the need arise, sacrifice themselves for the other.
Characters often say all they need by just a glance, giving each other the evils, before a profusion of frenetic swordplay takes place. Warriors burst out of the ground, swirl through the air and at one point drop from the sky. You can clearly see Woo’s flamboyant visual style developing in this picture, with some expertly crafted sequences. Slow-motion is utilised extensively throughout, which would later become his trademark. Despite being a dark violent film, often spraying blood across the screen, the story is not without humour. I particularly liked Sleeping Wizard (Chin Yuet-sang), who could fight with his eyes shut. Any opponent can never really tell whether he’s napping, or simply lying in wait, ready to spring into action. Highlights in the film include an exhilarating confrontation in a candle-lit chamber, involving a lethal duel with flames.
While neither of these films show Woo at the top of his game, they ably demonstrate a director of considerable talent at the start of his career, perfecting techniques that would later flourish in much bigger productions.
Eureka! has released the films on separate discs that come in a single set. Both are presented in an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and make their UK debut on Blu-ray, in dazzling new 2K restorations. Colours are wonderfully vibrant, showing off all the costumes in their full glory. There is also an appreciable level of fine detail throughout, such as textures in garments, the monuments, temples and background foliage. Unfortunately, the clarity does at times accentuate some limitations in the make-up design.
There are multiple audio options: Cantonese, Mandarin and English. As to be expected, the English dub is horrid, with voices that seldom suit the characters. Purists will invariably go with the Cantonese or Mandarin tracks. In terms of quality, no imperfections such as pops or crackle were detected. Dialogue was distinct throughout. Optional English subtitles are also included.
There are informative brand new audio commentaries on both films, by martial-arts cinema authority Mike Leeder.
I would have loved to see a brand new retrospective documentary on Woo, which would have been the icing on the cake. Instead we get just two short archival interviews with the director (running times: 15:17 and 22:50), where he discusses both films and his influences. These are interspersed with clips from various films, including Heroes Shed No Tears, plus a few words from Hong Kong legend Chow Yun Fat.
Trailers for both films
Reversible inlay featuring original poster artwork
Limited Edition Collector's booklet [first 2000 copies only] - includes plenty of colour stills and some new writing on Woo by Matthew Thrift, which is an excellent read. Plus: archival writing by Asian film expert Frank Djeng.