Near the end of Hand of Death, a band of brothers come together and hatch a plan to finally defeat their adversary, a traitor to our hero’s Shaolin brotherhood. Playing the least substantial parts in this four-person crew are a young Jackie Chan and John Woo, self-inserted as a scholar who requires escorting across the river. They’re just about recognisable, although not quite comfortable in either their era or the film’s; it’s almost as if they have been cast in a Cloud Atlas segment, playing their own distant ancestors. The effect is even more pronounced with Sammo Hung, playing a minor villain role in the film, with a somewhat more extravagant costume to match.
Hung and Chan (along with their Peking Opera School contemporary Yuen Biao) took care of the film’s stunt choreography, and some of the early Chan slapstick the film offers is a curious, if largely unenlightening footnote in Hong Kong cinema history. But Woo’s secondary role as actor, while much briefer, is more intriguing— this character who shows very little of himself, who never really gets to fight, who drinks and banters with his warrior friends but who otherwise stays back and observes, is how John Woo introduces himself in one of his first films as director? After all, in an interview attached to Eureka’s new dual blu-ray release of this film and also Last Hurrah For Chivalry, Woo boasts that he ‘was a general in my former life’ and based Last Hurrah’s drunken swordsman (‘a classic hero in our history’) partly on himself.
John Woo made his name in 1986, with the gritty action crime film A Better Tomorrow; his work previous to that is rarely discussed or celebrated. In putting these two films together, Eureka is explicitly asking for them to be appraised not as a pair of relatively minor wuxia films from Hong Kong’s 1970s martial arts cinema boom, but as a pair of John Woo films— ones that express his recurring themes of old-fashioned brotherhood and loyalty in a time of increasing expediency and corruption, even if Woo’s nascent stylishness is (supposedly) struggling under the weight of an established genre.
Is Eureka asking too much? Woo made two comedies (one extremely high-grossing) and a modern-day thriller in between these two; this release is only one way of answering ‘what Woo did’ before A Better Tomorrow, and it’s not clear whether that was ever the right question to ask— he wasn’t exactly labouring in obscurity. That said, the stark differences between the two films are fascinating.
Hand of Death feels like Woo the Olympic gymnast stuck training in the school playground, with creaky sets and bloodless violence forming the backdrop to a boilerplate revenge narrative against an oppressive minor functionary of the ruling Qing dynasty. There’s occasional flashes of the emotional heft Woo can bring, with characters forging uneasy but quixotic bonds of loyalty in order to face extreme danger together.
There’s also some neat scenes inspired by Woo’s mentor Chang Cheh, in which the heroes prepare for the final fight in extensive detail and with careful repetition, gradually honing their minds and bodies to counter the villain’s signature style. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for these, and the more materially specific and niche the training gets, the better; look out for the unusual (but not that unusual) role a greased-up bamboo pole plays in the proceedings.
But Woo’s heart doesn’t seem altogether in it, the charisma of the film’s young supporting cast deadened thanks to its staid and stoic leads. This was the era of predominantly Mandarin-language film in Hong Kong, the last hurrah of the major studios before a new wave of producers and independents broke the mold, and the Shaw Brothers switched to the small screen. Even though Golden Harvest’s logo precedes both these films, Last Hurrah For Chivalry is a breath of fresh air. Described by Woo as a ‘political movie’, it’s shot in Cantonese, heavily indebted to the style-rich thrills of Sergio Leone and Jean-Pierre Melville, and full of operatic intensity, mordant cynicism and some pungently eloquent moments of bathos that owe a lot to the stumbling desperation of Kurosawa’s most tragic protagonists.
It’s a film about the folly of power and the difficulty of finding true friendship. There’s an extremely impressive opening sequence in which our apparent hero Kao Pang’s wedding goes south, his father’s nemesis crashing the party while his wife turns out to be a hired assassin; there’s some exquisite chaos as an injured Kao Pang stumbles his way through his house’s noisy filigree of blade on blade. Then there’s a lot of roughly edited mess to untangle while we’re introduced to the couple of characters who will be set on a collision course with said nemesis.
Opposites attract— Damian Lau’s Tsing Yi, a cantankerous drunken mercenary, is almost addicted to violence and will take any job, no matter how likely it is that he’ll have to fight twice as hard again in order to get paid— an authentic depiction of freelancing, emphasis on the lancing. Wai Pak’s Chang San, on the other hand, is caring for his sick mother. He’s happy to use his fists in persuading a local merchant to marry his sister, although he’s sworn off swordfighting altogether. That is, until a psychotic challenger comes along who believes that he constitutes the last great test of a swordsman’s ability.
The relatively low stakes of the film’s central quest are countered by the sweep of its presentation, the way it treats moments of acute personal betrayal seriously in their own right, while also turning them into Shakespearean signs of a wider dysfunction at the heart of political power. Woo claims he was trying to approach fight scenes with the same observational clarity that the MGM musical brought to dance sequences; and in many ways Woo’s graceful dancers are like Stanley Donen’s— bundles of nerves and self-doubt that briefly resolve themselves into strong, confident performers, even as their performance expresses bitter truths about the harsh reality that lies just outside of it.
The most extreme example of this is the film’s best scene, a protracted swordfight between our two heroes and ‘Sleeping Buddha of the Blade’, a man who is preternaturally capable with twin swords; just as long as he’s fast asleep. Between snoring bouts he lurches himself awake, achieving both stone-faced slapstick and terrifyingly impersonal viciousness in every swing of his blades, occasionally yelping back to oafish consciousness at the touch of our heroes’ swords.
That’s just one taste of the madcap inventiveness of Last Hurrah’s fight scenes, and also a pretty decent metaphor for its director, who lurches this way and that, alternating between being dead tired of studio filmmaking and suddenly, thrillingly alive to its possibilities.