少林門 (1976)
The Hand of Death

Reviewed by: Chungking_Cash
Date: 05/20/2010

To date, the second of only two very marginal collaborations between Jackie Chan and John Woo; neither had made a name for themselves when "The Hand of Death" (aka "Countdown in Kung Fu") premiered in 1976, though both future auteurs have a pulse.

Dorian Tan stars as a Shaolin avenger whose gung fu is so good nothing can keep up with him including the film. That's less a compliment to the Korean import and more a critique of the film on a whole; "The Hand of Death" is just that slow.

Twenty-seven year old director John Woo appears in an extended cameo as one of Tan's allies.

Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: Masterofoneinchpunch
Date: 04/16/2008
Summary: Death only means there is a hole in my body

Early in John Woo's career as a director in Hong Kong, he had the auspiciousness to direct three of the seven fortunes in Yuen Biao, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in their first movie together Hand of Death (1976: Chinese Title literally means Shaolin Gate) though much was not made of this at the time because they were all struggling to make a career. They have yet to work together again in such a capacity though they have said nothing but kind words about each other since. An interesting point, in hindsight, is that the star of the film is none of the three (it is hard to spot Yuen Biao as his role is of a stunt double and bit actor) but Korean export and Tae Kwon Do expert Dorian Tan Tao-Liang.

Dorian Tan Tao-Liang stars as Yun Fei a Shaolin trained fighter looking to find Zhang Yi (John Woo) and escort him through White Stone town and across the White River. Zhang holds a map of all Qing bases in the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces in southeast China. He can get a hold of Zhang by contacting pupil Chiu Guo. However, when he is found, he has already been arrested and ready to be beheaded by the Manchus led by a traitor of the Shaolin Shih Xiaofeng (ubiquitous bad guy James Tien: Fearless Hyena, Winners and Sinners) who has taught himself White Crane Soul Chaser Style (he is the titular Hand of Death). Even though his Kung Fu is superior, he has the additional help of Eight Bodyguards with different styles and two top ranking guards in Smiling Fox and Du Ching (Sammo Hung who also does the stunt coordination) whose overbite is quite preposterous and resembles a "hopping vampire" though he is trained in tiger and crane styles.

Yun Fei gets the assistance of a woodcutter Tan, who helped him earlier to get past a roadblock and dispose of a body (a true friend helps you get rid of a corpse). Tan's elder brother was killed by Shih's men. Tan also obtains the help of "The Wanderer" (Yeung Wai) an expert swordsman who accidentally killed a prostitute he was in love with also because of Shih and would have given up his sword for good if it was not for Yun. These men will help Zhang Yi get across the river to get the plans to help once and for all defeat the Qing Empire and restore the Ming Dynasty (the plot of the Qing Dynasty as bad guys is one of the staples of Hong Kong martial art movies like Heroes Two, Royal Tramp and Iron Monkey).

Many will have bought, borrowed or rented this movie because of the presence of Jackie Chan. He originally was only supposed to have a stunt man role (helped hired onto the film by his "big brother" Sammo Hung) but as John Woo found one of the Korean actors lacking in the physical department, he replaced his part with Jackie Chan and expanded his role according to an interview with Lee Server in "Asian Pop Cinema" he stated he "changed the whole script to focus more on him and show his great skill." though there might be some fraudulent hindsight with that statement. Jackie originally had been the stunt coordinator for Woo's first film Young Dragons (1975) that came out a year earlier. Jackie did get hurt on the film, getting knocked unconscious after being pulled by a cable while being kicked by Dorian Tan and landing and hitting his head on a rock (though this would not be as bad as his most famous accident in Operation Condor where he almost lost his life).

Others might watch this because it belongs in the oeuvre of John Woo. It is still very early in his career (his fourth film in two years of being a director), but you can see traces of his talent. There are some nice handheld scenes, a little use of slow motion and hints of "heroic bloodshed" elements (though this would come to blossom in Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)) like an early scene when Jackie Chan and Dorian Tan first meet which seemed to hint a certain homoerotism (or else those were some of the most strange smiles I have ever seen), but then failed to capitalize on it later in the film.

Overall, this is a decent, yet unspectacular film. The direction is solid, yet it does not feel like a John Woo directed movie. The scenery of the Korean hillsides is absolutely beautiful and helps makes this movie easier to watch. The story is mediocre, but not too many glaring holes in the story. The Kung Fu ability is give or take. The kicking of Dorian Tan is beautiful to behold, his punching ability and forms are good but not great. Jackie Chan is also awesome with his fighting and you get to see him use a spear the Little Eagle God Lance as it is called in the film (which that and the staff are the traditional weapons that Jackie is best with). The highlight fight scenes of the movie are when Jackie fights several of the Eight Bodyguards and later when Dorian fights Sammo. The latter is especially impressive because of Sammo's willingness to hurt his body to make Tan look good. James Tien is not much of a martial artist, though his acting if fine as he is the consummate Hong Kong bad guy, so his hand-to-hand combat scenes are a bit pedantic though he has one scene wielding a sword that was good.

The Fox/Fortune Star R1 release is a very good barebones release. There are no dubtitles and the film is uncut. There is an English dub, a genuine Mandarin mono track and it is presented in a very nice looking widescreen transfer though there is some damage to the elements. Unfortunately, like most of the Fox/Fortune Star releases you only get trailers as extras. Here is another example where the best release is the R2 Hong Kong Legends version -- Ultra-Bit Edition.

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: cal42
Date: 06/27/2007
Summary: Despite the potential, it doesn't produce the goods

An evil Manchu commander (James Tien) attacks the Shaolin Temple, forcing the survivors to flee, regroup and eventually take revenge. Among the heroes are a kicking specialist Yung Fei (Dorian Tan), a woodcutter after his own revenge (Jackie Chan) and a mysterious swordsman (Yeung Wai).

Hand of Death (a rubbish and totally misleading title by the way – the lead is a kicking powerhouse. It should really be called Shaolin Gate, which is a literal translation of the title) was a crushing disappointment when I first watched it all those years ago. The primary reason was that Jackie Chan received top billing and he’s hardly in it. If I had been prepared for that bombshell, I may have looked at it a little less harshly.

Or maybe not. Hand of Death still disappoints no matter how you look at it. The fights aren’t terribly good, you see, and the story is sometimes a bit lacking in oomph. The sight of a bucktoothed Sammo Hung occasionally raises a smile, and the pre eye-op Jackie is still surprising to see, but this is routine with a capital “R”. I’m guessing this is also the beginning of James Tien’s tenure as a super villain – which he would invariably be from here on out until his retirement.

So despite a couple of supporting actors who would go on to great things, and having the distinction of being a John Woo film, there’s not much to see in this. Go watch a Shaw Brothers film instead.

Reviewer Score: 5

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 09/17/2005

A group of rebels (led by Tan) must band together to protect a courier (Woo) carrying a top-secret message that may change the fate of China.

Sure, it's a standard plot, but remember that this is Golden Harvest (the king of kung-fu quickies in the 70's) that we're talking about here. Hand of Death is by no means an Enter the Dragon, but it's still fairly entertaining to watch, especially if you're a fan of Jackie Chan or John Woo. The plot moves along a bit sluggishly at times and is full of cliches, but the fights are staged compentently, and the finale is a set of three pretty good fights. If you want to see an early look into the careers of future Hong Kong superstars (or just want to check out Sammo Hung with ridiculously cheesy fake buck teeth), you should see Hand of Death.

Interesting trivia:

* This was one of Woo's first movies as a director; he's listed as "John Y. Woo" in the credits.

* During the filming of a fight sequence, Jackie Chan hit his head and fell unconcious. Woo seriously thought he had caused permanent damage to Chan and went to call for an ambulance. When he returned, he found Chan had woken up and was shaken, but willing to do the stunt over. The two have remained friends, but Woo finds it hard to watch Chan's films because he always thinks of everything that could go wrong.

* This was the first film that Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao ("the three brothers") appeared in together. They all attended the same opera school in Hong Kong and would go on to work on several more films, including the highly successful "Lucky Stars" series.

* Jackie Chan said this in his autobiography about working with Woo: "I enjoyed the film, and I enjoyed working with John...[he] taught me a few things about what directing was all about. I'd never wanted to direct before, partly because most of the directors I'd worked with were incompentent. John was different: he knew what he was doing...he had a vision...he cared about every move, every stunt, every fight, as if he were performing them himself...this was the kind of director I wanted to be." [Quoted from I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action (c) 1998 Ballantine Books]

* Jackie Chan's role was originally intended for a Korean actor, but Woo thought the Korean was too old and slow and so fired him and brought in Chan instead.

* Jackie Chan was the stunt co-ordinator for Woo's first film, The Young Dragons.

* Woo says this about the movie: "I was the first young director in Hong Kong, and I was 27 years old. At that time most of the directors were at least 45 and had worked as an assistant [director] for 15 years. But I only had a year and a half as an assistant, and that made some people uncomfortable. A lot of film people said, 'He won't make it, he's too young.' But before they signed me I was still living in my friend's office, and had no place to go, so I was very grateful to Golden Harvest" [from Hard-Boiled DVD notes].

[review from www.hkfilm.net]

Reviewed by: SteelwireMantis
Date: 09/04/2003
Summary: Not one of Woo's/Chan's best, but not that bad.

John Woo's first attempt at directing a motion picture with Golden Harvest proves to be an average attempt with Jackie Chan in his first credited role.

The Shaolin Temple is ambushed by the Manchus with all the monks killed under the order of the evil James Tien. The abbot of the Temple goes into hiding and trains the survivors so that they can overthrow the Manchus. Dorian Tan plays the most skillful of the pack and sets off to get revenge. He then meets a young woodcutter (Chan) who has been longing for revenge of his brothers' murder by the Manchus and a skilled swordsman vengeful for the blood of the woman he loved.

The plot is too basic-old-school, but the film on the whole was not too awful or that amazing. The fights were kind of slow and the martial arts performances from everyone were sloppy (apart from Jackie even though he was not the main character). Yet compared to 'Not Scared to Die' (a.k.a 'Eagle Shadow Fist') and other films that Jackie Chan had worked on with Da Di Productions previously, this film was well directed and the outcome was pretty enjoyable.

A worthwhile movie, I'd advise to watch it.


Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: Sydneyguy
Date: 03/15/2002
Summary: OLD!!

By today's standards, this movie is old and the action is slow. Not much of a plot either but you get to see Sammo Hung as a bucked tooth bad guy, but nothing to really recommend.


Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 02/09/2002
Summary: Absolutely amazing!

Just kidding :(

With this being Jackie Chan's first credited role, Sammo Hung doing choreography and John Woo directing you'd expect this to be something special, but in fact it's just a pretty standard old school flick. My chronology of old school isn't good enough to know if it was ahead of its time for 1975, but there is nothing obvious in it that hints at the future careers of those involved. Jackie is barely recognisable here - in fact I'm still not completely sure that he was the character I thought he was. You can catch a few glimpses of Yuen Biao as a stuntman if you're so inclined.

Not a bad old school movie - pretty standard Shaolin fighters team together to overthrow an evil Manchu lord type plot, with lots of fight scenes. Just nothing particularly special. Although being able to see it widescreen & subtitled is a nice treat I guess.

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: Inner Strength
Date: 01/12/2002
Summary: slighty better than average

Another kung fu movie, not bad though. It is entertaining and a bit more work involved than usual. John Woo does the directing here, on one of his earlier films. Dorian Tan and James Tin are two heros after the bad guys, one of which played by Sammo Hung. Jackie Chan has a small part too, but nothing special.

Rating (out of 5): 3

(This rating is based on the year & genre, so don't think it's based as a comparison on new releases etc.)

Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: morgold
Date: 04/01/2001

After having seen only the miserably cropped versions of John Woo's "Hand of Death" (aka "Countdown to Kung Fu") that circulated for years, I eagerly awaited the new remastered, letterboxed DVD, imagining that the widescreen compositions would offer some revelations about a film I had previously found dull. Unfortunately, being able to see the film in its entirety only reinforces how unexceptional it is; at least when it was cropped there was some mystery about it, and you could always blissfully fantasize about the images you were missing.

The plot, if you care to follow it, is cardboard "Hans vs. Manchus" fodder, and the oafish buckteeth evil Sammo Hung must wear make him appear absurd rather than threatening. It is, however, interesting to see a young Jackie Chan in a conventionally violent role, as he slaughters faceless soldiers in ways he would not in his later "family-oriented" films. But Woo's direction shows neither imagination nor enthusiasm, and whatever widescreen compositions he can muster are soon aborted by crude deployment of that damn 1970's zoom lens. Clearly, Woo's interest in male bonding, cathartic violence, and Peckinpah-esque montage do indeed begin with 1978's "Last Hurrah for Chivalry," and not with this film.

While it is still a treat to see an older film restored on DVD, the fact that this film, as opposed to classics by Chang Cheh or King Hu, receives the DVD treatment is somewhat depressing in itself. In fact, this utterly ordinary production may be a great argument against auteurism, since few would even be interested in it if the name "Woo" were not found in the credits.

Reviewed by: Darryl
Date: 12/21/1999

The Shaolin temple is being slaughtered throughout China by a ruthless lord. Around the continent a series of martial artists trained in Shaolin await their chance meetings to help re-build the Shaolin temple and overthrow the lord. One loyal student sets out, meets up with another, and so on.. Eventually the team sets out to help a scholar (portrayed by Woo) with a special map get to shelter. Yuen Biao is unrecognizable, Sammo Hung Kim Pao has bucked teeth and portrays the Lord's henchman, and it isn't the worst of the chop-sockey bunch, but it is far from the Woo most fanboys dig. I still liked it.

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

Just an average chop sockey film as far as I'm concerned. Thestory and characterizations have been seen in countless other films. The visual style is flat and despite Jackie Chan the martial arts scenes are forgettable.

[Reviewed by John Robert Dodd]