||Wu-Yu Shen was born in 1946 in Canton, but the wider world would know him by the name John Woo, who by the nineteen-eighties was fast becoming one of the most celebrated action directors in the world with his runaway hit A Better Tomorrow. That led to The Killer and Hard-Boiled, all making Chow Yun Fat an international superstar, and then Hollywood beckoned with such blockbusters as Mission: Impossible 2 and Face/Off, before his career cooled and he returned to Asia to make epics like Red Cliff. He can be justifiably recognised as one of the most influential filmmakers in the field of action of his era.
But he did not start out that way, indeed what he wanted to make in those early days of the seventies were homages to his idol Jean-Pierre Melville, specifically one film of that director's, Le Samourai, which encapsulated all Woo wanted to convey about the code of personal honour a gangster can have quite apart from his living killing people. Whether this was an accurate representation of actual hitmen and hoodlums was very much a moot point, but it was what Woo was desperate to shake up the Hong Kong cinema scene with, if only his bosses at Golden Harvest, the main rivals to the Shaw Brothers, would allow him.
Two of these seventies efforts have been released on fully restored Blu-ray by Eureka: 1979's Last Hurrah for Chivalry, and 1976's Hand of Death, and they make both an education for Woo's filmography and undeniable entertainment into the bargain. The later film is first up, as the title suggests as much a musing over that code he was interested in exploring, only here transferred from the crime milieu of Melville to the more traditional martial arts movie of its decade, in this case a swordplay scenario. It was a fairly complex plot that went beyond the usual vengeance motives for the characters, and highlighted Woo's ambition.
That story had Kao Peng (Lau Kong) seeking swordsmen to best his rival, a man who not only gatecrashed his wedding, but paid his bride-to-be to attack him (!) and try to kill him with a small army of henchmen into the bargain. Kao settles on local hothead Chang San (Wei Pei), who seems to spend his time beating up innocent men trying to go about their business with the minimum of hassle, and Ching I (Damian Lau), a talented man with a blade who prefers to get hammered on any alcohol he can possibly get down his throat. If you think those two don't sound promising, then o ye of little faith, you don't know Hong Kong movies.
Although there was plenty to compare Last Hurrah for Chivalry to its contemporaries, with the largely male cast sporting the requisite thick sideburns and an emphasis on bloodshed in anticipation of the heroic bloodshed style Woo would make his own, the director was keen to break away from his recent comedy hits in his homeland to establish himself in action. Thus this was stuffed to the gills with blade on blade action, with as many variations on swordplay as he could manage, all in homage to the Westerns of Sergio Leone (another influence), with a dose of Sam Peckinpah slow motion violence as well. There was even space for humour, but it was serious by the finale.
In that film, for example, Wei and Lau combat a man who is asleep: sleepwalking his way through the swordfight in a manner that looks frankly bizarre. But that was a scene that belonged more aptly with Hand of Death, for that co-starred Jackie Chan, whose star was rising along with Woo's though their careers would travel different paths. Not entirely, as they did secure huge hits in the eighties which led them to more success in Hollywood before retreating to Asia once more, but Chan's metier was comedy action, while any laughs in a Woo thriller were few and far between once he had established himself as he wished.
Chan, legend has it, had been struggling in the mid-seventies as despite extensive training in the famous Peking Opera, he had not enjoyed a breakthrough, similar to his two pals Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao who had also suffered through the gruelling training and were seeking the same kind of opportunities. Woo had been hired by Golden Harvest to take advantage of cheap working conditions in South Korea, where he made two martial arts quickies, Hand of Death being the second, where it was clear he was beginning to learn his trade and increasing in confidence: Chan, Hung and Biao were all hired for this.
Jackie and Sammo (sporting a strange set of fake teeth) were easy to spot, though Yuen was not so apparent (he basically shows up to get killed off), but they were all assisting with the choreography. The plot saw former Bruce Lee support James Tien (with a mighty moustache to partly disguise his babyfaced features) try to wipe the Shaolin fighters from the face of the Earth with his legion of followers; hero Dorian Tan was a surviving exponent and determined to have his, yes, vengeance which took in the usual tropes of training montages and minor skirmishes with the underlings before the great big fight at the finale.
If you were looking for the trademark John Woo flourishes and themes, well, they were not so much in evidence in Hand of Death as he was a contract director for Golden Harvest and had yet to develop his distinctive personality, but that was not to say this was a dead loss, as there were plenty of scenes that would satisfy kung fu fans of the vintage era. Despite looking in places as if the production had arrived at any free field or empty car park they could find to stage the battles, the moves were pretty reasonable and the climactic beat downs suitably tough, and you could tell Woo was emulating the Italian Westerns and applying their style to his Asian entertainments. And as the film that guided Chan to his ultimate crown as the most popular star in the world, however nascently, we have a lot to thank this for. Woo himself never looked back, and this pair of his early stepping stones were full of interest, including his sole wuxia with Last Hurrah for Chivalry.
[Eureka's Blu-ray set of these films has the following features:
Stunning 1080p presentation of both films on Blu-ray, from brand new 2K restorations (they do look great)
Cantonese, Mandarin and English audio options
Optional English subtitles
Brand new audio commentaries on both Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Hand of Death, by martial-arts cinema authority Mike Leeder
Archival interviews with director John Woo
Trailers for both films
Reversible inlay featuring original poster artwork
Limited Edition Collector's booklet featuring new writing by film writer Matthew Thrift [First 2000 copies only].]