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Hand of Death on VHS
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Hand Of Death
cast: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Tan Tao Lian, and James Tien

director: John Woo

95 minutes (15) 1976
widescreen ratio 16:9
Hong Kong Legends DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Trudi Topham
Hand Of Death (aka: Shaolin Men) was made over 30 years ago, in a time when a lot of Hong Kong films purported to show the arcane secrets of kung fu to an audience largely entranced by the balletic performances. Yet even for its time it's quite a curiosity: it actually has a plot, the acting's not too bad, the directing is fairly adventurous, and already John Woo's hallmark of nearly everyone being dead by the end is starting to establish itself.

The trouble is that, as with all works from any artists at the beginning of their careers, they've all gone on to hone themselves and produce far greater output. Releasing Hand Of Death nowadays is like having your mother show your new girlfriend those snapshots of you on the potty. If your girlfriend squints, she can just about make out the features that one day became those she now knows and loves, but ultimately it's still a bunch of pictures of a baby pooping.

Obviously there are a lot of fight sequences. What's both interesting and dull in equal measure is how slowly those scenes take place. Each move is made in clear distinction from the next, and far more slowly than they would occur in a fight. I can envision hordes of excited children leaving the cinema, practicing the moves they remember. Toward the ending the speed of the fights accelerate; the audience has learned the moves by now, and can finally appreciate them in full flow.

It's a whole different way of making films. It is what audiences wanted in the 1970s, but now that viewers are more sophisticated, Hand Of Death sadly doesn't withstand the test of time, and the film's also hampered by English dubbing. While the translation isn't too bad (notwithstanding the mild Christianisation of the Shaolin monks), there are either only two guys doing the voiceovers, or they all sound exactly the same. When the film's editing is as choppy as this, it'd be nice to be able to distinguish one character's dialogue from the next.

Finally, there's a peculiar amount of homoeroticism. Lots of men making goo-goo eyes at one another and lounging seductively while allowing their gazes to roam over the other chap's body. While I'm usually up for some hot man-love, it's done so strangely here that it's utterly bizarre, and the rapid inter-cutting between thrusting spears and thrusting saws during combat practice was particularly amusing. It's a nice little look at how Hong Kong used to make films, but don't come at it expecting John Woo's flair, or Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung's comedy.

This original video release also has the original Cantonese trailer with English subtitles. The subtitles are far superior to the dubbing throughout the film, and advertise Hand Of Death (or Countdown In Kung Fu, as the translation of the trailer would have it) as "a great film" that is as much documentary on kung fu as it is a story.

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