Hand of Death (Ultrabit Edition) Review

After an apprenticeship as assistant director to the great Chang Cheh at Shaw Brothers studios, Golden Harvest offered John Woo a contract to direct for them. The movies he made for Shaw's poorer rivals were far from exceptional and this was largely due to Golden Harvest not finding Woo the right vehicle for his talents. At one point the studio tried to sell him as a comic director, and at another as a director of romances. His third film, Hand Of Death, combined the martial arts and heroic bloodshed that he had helped Cheh produce at Shaw and had a cast of soon to be action greats like Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan and Yuen Baio.

Hand of Death is a Shaolin revenge film which sets itself up with the familiar struggle of Shaolin and Han warriors fighting against their Ching oppressors, a martial arts tale of David and Goliath. Assorted Shaolin refugees band together to get personal and political vengeance against the devilish Commander Chih, but they must first get past his eight bodyguards. Of the avengers, the Swordsman lost his true love to the lecherous Commander, Tan Feng saw his brother killed by the cruel Chings, and Yun Fei is fighting to keep the teachings of the Shaolin temple alive and to get vengeance for his murdered master. So we are presented with a battle between the chivalrous brothers in vengeance and the mendacious Chings.

The lack of originality in Hand of Death is pretty blatant, it is almost a check-list of every martial arts cliché from the 1970s. We get the bloody brotherhood of sacrifice, a swordsman brought down by love of a woman, a drunken fighter, numerous fights to show off lots of fighting styles and different weapons, training montages, bare chested fighting a la Bruce Lee, and a finale on a mountaintop. Looking at this minor film now the problem for Woo's film is that others like Cheh, Woo-Ping and Chia-Liang did it so much better in films like Vengeance, Drunken Master, and Legendary Weapons of China. To be fair to Woo, he is hampered by an unambitious budget and unimpressive production standards and it is not his fault that the small band of the Shaolin fighters, all six of them, seem to outnumber the supposed hordes of Chih's troops. However Woo was responsible for the script and its hoary clichés, overuse of flashbacks, ropey dialogue and plot. When the group decides to attack Chih you are led to believe that this is to defeat him but about halfway through this sequence the focus switches without comment to helping a scholar evade Chih. The scholar is played by Woo, and most of the actresses who have been cast in the role of dramatic accessory by Woo since will smile at this effete and rather pointless character whose key function is to be protected and to get his friends killed and maimed. On this evidence it is only too clear that Chang Cheh was right when he told Woo that his future lay behind the camera, and not in front of it.

Despite some uncertain plotting, the film does not drag and the momentum is sustained throughout its hour and a half running time. The characters are interesting enough but the supposed brotherhood of the avengers does seems less than convincing as Hand of Death does not flesh out their relationships as later Woo projects would. Crucially the fight scenes are well executed and this is the doing of Sammo Hung as action choreographer, who creates enough variety and movement to excite whilst Woo concentrates on keeping the camera tight to avoid the budget limits being too obvious. The variety of Northern and Southern martial arts styles and the use of numerous types of weapons gives the film some richly needed diversity and the daring do of the stuntmen creates some fine scenes especially where Hung is kicked through some large earthenware jugs. As a bucktoothed villian Hung enjoys himself and the remainder of the cast are at least satisfactory. Jackie Chan's turn as a supporting hero is unflashy with his performance being athletic rather than a flexing of his comic muscles, and Baio's two roles are pretty much third henchman on the right affairs that you will do well to catch. Basically though Hand of Death is run of the mill, Woo fans will not see any of the brio he was to show later and Chan fans will be disappointed at his small role.

Hand of Death proves that the great start small and its chief point of interest is the early presence of the trio of Baio, Chan and Hung. John Woo's direction is proficient, his writing is generic, and the production is poor. The real success here is Hung's action choreography which makes this unimaginative mess far better than it deserves to be.

The Disc
This term "Ultrabit" seems to be a marketing man's way of saying we couldn't find any extras so we'll boast about the transfer of the film instead. Here the transfer is recorded at a relatively high bit rate of between 8 and 8.5Mbits, and the surround tracks at 448 and 384kbits for the Mandarin and English surround tracks but 190kbits for the other tracks. Given the dual layer disc is only about 70% used, presumably even higher recording rates could have been used for A/V but to be honest I don't know if the raw materials would justify it.

The transfer is grainy, and colour and contrast have been boosted somewhat. The colours are rather too warm and flesh tones are inappropriately hot. The film has clearly been cropped to fit the original aspect ratio, and rather than simple cropping at the top and bottom of the frame there also seems to be cropping at the sides. How this shows itself in the film is numerous examples of decapitated characters and the opening titles being chopped at the sides. I do wonder if Hong Kong Legends have actually worked from an already cropped print. The print shows some damage throughout with occasional specks and scratches, but there are moments of seriously worn inserts and a huge tear in the print at one point.

Since original audio was added post shooting it should come as little surprise that all the soundtracks lack ambient sound but given the film is wrapped in music throughout this is not too distracting. In the two surround tracks, the surround effects are well deployed spatially but they lack a sense of proper integration, for the most part the side speakers are concerned with music whilst the centre deals with dialogue and action. It is functional surround sound but not distractingly bad, and, surprise, surprise, the mono track is probably the best way of hearing the film despite its flatness. The sound is free from distortion, pops or hiss, but occasionally the music track sounds worn and subdued. The English audio option is cheesy with characters with Anglicised and Americanised voices quite at odds with the setting. The English subs make odd errors in grammar and choose not to translate words like sifu(master), but they are generally fine and clear.

The only Hand of Death extra is a commentary from Bey Logan. As always he is endlessly informative and good company, he points out the moments Yuen Baio turns up in his very small roles and explains about the small budget and Korean setting. He even discusses the trend for Hong Kong actors to have eyelid surgery to widen their eyes when discussing the pre-op Jackie Chan in this film. Some of his tangential asides about other films can be unnecessary but I suppose commenting on a relatively undistinguished film like this may leave you scrabbling about to have enough to say. The remaining extras are other trailers from the HKL catalogue which showcase their rather overdone "In a world where..." voiceover technique to trailers which does pale after a while.

More and more DVD companies take the easy way out of presenting films and take an existing fair print, crop it so it's anamorphic, contrast and colour boost and add artificial surround sound. That's whats happened here and it's ok I suppose, but it is marketing inspired rather than from a love of films. With such an ordinary film, it means you get a very serviceable disc but this is a world away from how you would ideally want to see the film. The disc will appeal to you if you don't mind the cropping and want better subtitles than existing releases, but it does feel like another one off the HKL production line rather than the loving releases they used to create.

I'd like companies like Hong Kong Legends to rediscover that love of film and perhaps the best way might be for people to stop listening to the marketing and buy elsewhere. I can hear the trailer now - "In a world where DVD releases are dull formulaic bodges, one man must defeat the odds....".

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