Hand of Death

The overwhelming majority of critical responses to John Woo’s opus examine his work in the context of re-emerging Hong Kong cinema of the 1980s and 1990s and the popularity of his gangster films which eventually led Woo to Hollywood and acquired him a status of cult director. With the exception of widely known biographical details and rich and often confusing filmographic data, scholars and film reviewers frequently disregard the production history, main influences and poetic motifs developed in his early films and their impact on Woo’s career. This article is an attempt to map the framework for critical research into the early phase of John Woo’s directorial work, placing particular emphasis on three important factors: Woo’s work as an assistant director with Chang Cheh; his first success as a Golden Harvest director, Hand of Death (1976); and his work as an assistant director and production designer with the popular Hong Kong comedian, Michael Hui. These factors greatly influenced Woo’s early career and frame the basic parametres for the interpretation of his films produced for the Hong Kong and Asian market after the commercial success of A Better Tomorrow in 1986, and the subsequent phase of his work which commenced with Woo’s move to Hollywood in 1992.

Born Wu Yusen in 1946 in Canton, Woo moved to Hong Kong with his parents when he was four. Woo’s father, a Chinese scholar, found the transition particularly hard. He could not establish himself professionally in a dynamic, money driven Hong Kong. He contracted tuberculosis, spent almost ten years in hospital and died when Woo was sixteen. (1) The remainder of Woo’s schooling was sponsored by the Christian church, which, the director argues, partially explains the intense religious note in his films. Growing up in the slums of Hong Kong, Woo witnessed the violence of city gangs and became an avid cinephile, particularly interested in European, American and Japanese cinema. Similar to one of his favourite directors, Jean-Pierre Melville, he did not attend film school, but gained first experiences in making short 8mm movies. After completing school, Woo spent a number of years continuing to experiment with a 16mm camera. His most famous short films are Ouran and Sijke, directed with Shi Qi, currently one of the most prominent Hong Kong film critics.

Woo was profoundly influenced by Hollywood classics, French nouvelle vague and politically engaged Japanese cinema. The revolutionary changes in South East Asia created deep polarisation in Hong Kong society. Student demonstrations against colonial rule did not merely reflect the dissatisfaction with the status of the province, but simultaneously echoed demands for the reformulation of traditional social norms and political structures. The upcoming filmmakers, including Woo, were affected by those changes. The majority of the ‘young guns’ of the 1960s Hong Kong cinema worked for the Cathay Production Company, where John Woo also started his career as a script supervisor and production assistant. (2) Cathay was the only competitor to the most powerful film company in the colony, Shaw Brothers. However, the attempts of Cathay to take over the market from the Shaw Brothers ended in disaster. The Shaw empire which gradually moved its interests towards the TV market still played a major role in the Hong Kong cinema in the early 1980s while Cathay was substituted by the newly established Golden Harvest, led by ambitious producers Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho. (3)

During the 1970s, John Woo joined the Shaw Brothers and worked as an assistant director of Chang Cheh. Cheh, who began his movie career in Shanghai as a scriptwriter for the Cathay Production Company, directed one hundred and seven films in his long and productive career. He remains one of the most influential directorial figures of the kung fu cinema, especially in the genre of wuxia pian films (‘martial chivalry epics’). (4) Cheh’s films, a fascinating synthesis of traditional swordplay extravaganzas and kung fu choreography, also contributed to the development of a specific sub-genre of Shaolin films. He started directing in the late 1940s, but came to prominence with Tiger Boy (1964), a martial arts film which completely transformed the aesthetic conventions of the genre. Cheh began the golden period of martial arts cinema with The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) and Golden Swallow (1968), and continued his domination in the kung fu genre with The Heroic Ones (1970), The New One Armed Swordsman, Duel of Fists and The Deadly Duo (all 1971). He marked his return to centre stage with Blood Brothers (1973) and, in particular, the Disciples of Shaolin (1975). This film inspired an avalanche of films about the followers of the famous Buddhist order, the best examples of which are Liu Chia Liang’s Executioners from Shaolin (1977) and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978). Along with his highly acclaimed Five Venoms (1978), Cheh’s final masterpiece, The Crippled Avengers (1978), marked the end of the most successful phase of his career. John Woo dedicated Just Heroes (1990) to his mentor, thinking that Cheh would retire from filmmaking. However, Cheh continued to make movies in the 1980s and 1990s, completing his career with Hidden Hero in 1993.

Woo’s work with Cheh on Water Margin (1971), Boxer From Shantung (1971), Four Riders (1972) and Blood Brothers (1973) profoundly influenced his early cinematic texts. The traditional film narration, characteristic for Chinese film, is substituted by an abundance of violent scenes, one of the main reasons for delayed completion and exploitation of Woo’s early films. The director, on the other hand, frequently points out that Cheh’s influence is manifest primarily in his exploration of the moral and emotional universe of his protagonists and the Shaolin code of chivalry. (5) If this is true, the (original) titles of some of his later films possibly best reflect the aspirations of Cheh’s young assistant: Last Hurrah for Chivalry (Chivalrous Knight), A Better Tomorrow (True Colours of a Hero), Heroes Shed no Tears, The Killer (A Pair of Blood Splattering Heroes), Just Heroes (A Group of Chivalrous Heroes).

In 1973, Woo signed a three year contract with Golden Harvest, an emerging production house famous for a series of commercially successful films starring Bruce Lee. Established by Raymond Chaw, a former head of production of Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest produced low budget films, combining martial arts and love stories. Woo completed his independently produced directorial debut, The Young Dragons, in 1973, under the name of Wu Yu-Sheng, yet it took him two more years to re-edit the film and add music to the final version before it was released by Golden Harvest.

Woo’s most important film in this phase is Hand of Death, a low budget Shaolin film, famous because it features Jackie Chan in his first major role (it is Chan’s twelfth film) and Samo Hung as an actor and action director. Shaolin temple in Hong Kong cinema represents the epitome of Chinese cultural tradition and religious identity. Shaolin spirituality is based on the traditional principles of divine and human harmony, religious hierarchy, subordination, discipline, hard work and loyalty. Hand of Death is set in 17th century China, the Ching dynasty era when Manchu occupiers persecuted the members of the Shaolin sect. A group of monks, led by scholar Yang Fei (Dorian Tan), defend their temple against the renegade disciple, Shi (James Tien), a traitor who collaborates with Manchu rulers. Sasa Radojevic points out that the director adheres to the narrative framework and characterisation of the Shaolin film (a group of monks defend the temple confronting a traitor or a powerful enemy), accentuating the traditional moral values, obedience and loyalty, observed by the followers of the order. (6) Woo, who appears in the role of a regal scholar, insists on the importance of these principles in the scenes in which the spiritual vigour of his protagonists meets their patriotic zest; the opening scene between the master and his disciples, the cremation of an unknown Shaolin fighter, and the gathering of a group of rebels for their final confrontation with Manchu occupiers.

The mythical theme of male friendship, one of the most persistent in Woo’s work, emphatically emerges in his portrayal of a small group of kung fu fighters, united in their struggle against the powerful enemy. Their monolithic unity manifests the strength of their religious spirit and loyalty to the founding principles of the sect. Yet, it simultaneously heralds the poetic motifs prominently featured in Woo’s later films. Radojevic suggests that male friendship emerges with an intense homoerotic component, characteristic for the scenes in which monks use swords, shields, spears and oiled bamboo sticks for their martial arts practice. (7) The theme of male friendship is persistently contrasted by the motif of treason, also significant for Woo’s later work. Breaking the bonds of brotherhood, the traitor jeopardises the religious order, moral principles and familial harmony within the order, and faces ultimate punishment.

Woo situated the majority of action scenes in exteriors because of low budgetary constraints, using rural setting and period costumes to recreate the ambience of 17th century China. In the action scenes taking place in nature, the Manchu compound and the riverbank, the camera persistently focuses on acrobatic mastery and kung fu skills of the main protagonists. The effective use of zoom (first use of zoom in Hong Kong cinema was recorded in 1962 and had immense influence on the aesthetics of the martial arts genre) draws numerous parallels with the visual intensity of Sergio Leone’s work, reflecting his influence on the Hong Kong cinema of the period. Not surprisingly, considering that, in the same year, 1976, using the motif of Leone’s film, Hong Kong comedian Karl Maka directed the first kung fu comedy, titled The Good, the Bad and the Loser. Woo’s directorial path led him in a similar direction. After the completion of his next film, Princess Cheung Ping (1975), a remake of the popular Cantonese film opera, Tso Kein’s Tragedy of the Emperor’s Daughter (1959), the ensuing period in Woo’s career was marked by his continuous work in comedy and his first commercial success.

Comedy was the dominant genre in the Hong Kong production until the emergence of the martial arts film. The first Hong Kong feature, Stealing a Roast Duck (1909) was a comedy, as is approximately one quarter of eight thousand films made in Hong Kong in the period between 1909 and 1995. John Woo’s comedies occupy a far less prominent position in his cinematic opus than his well known, exhaustively dissected thrillers. It is not surprising that one of the most neglected aspects of Woo’s early career is his work with the popular Hong Kong comedian Michael Hui. Woo worked as a production manager on Games Gamblers Play (1974) and production designer on The Private Eyes (1976), a box office hit featuring three Hui brothers, Michael, Sam and Ricky, and one of the films that marked the emergence of Cantonese as the dominant dialect in Hong Kong cinema (this trend began in 1972 with Chu Yuan’s The House of 72 Tenants). He continued his cooperation with Hui as an assistant director on The Contract (1978), arguably the best Hong Kong comedy of the 1970s. Exploring what Fredric Dannen terms “the comic book aesthetic” (8) of the Hong Kong cinema, Woo’s films of this period, the highly successful screwball comedy Money Crazy (1977), Follow the Star (1977), the first episode of Hello Late Homecomers (1978) and From Riches to Rags (1979) are far less constrained by production demands than his subsequent action comedies, Plain Jane to the Rescue (1982) and particularly a more recent, Once a Thief (1991). According to Radojevic, their loose organisation of the narrative structure leaves more space for experimentation and occasional homage to the director’s cinematic sources. (9) A typical example is Laughing Times (1981), where Woo pays homage to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and another, To Hell With the Devil (1981), where he experiments mixing horror and comedy. Woo’s box office hit, From Riches to Rags (1979), builds on an old motif of a man looking for a murderer he hired, first established in Robert Siodmak’s Looking For His Murderer (1931) and developed by Philippe De Broca and other filmmakers. The jovial, comic book dramaturgy, featuring sudden changes of fortune and explosive showdown scenes, contributed to the immense success of this film. Yet, as Dannen points out, From Riches to Rags also foreshadowed the dark, surreal component of Woo’s later work. (10) The Russian roulette sequence in the film, a response to Cimino’s 1978 The Deer Hunter, heralded the scenes in Bullet in the Head (1990), a dark morality play which dramatised the frustrations and disappointments of a whole generation of Hong Kong youth.

Woo left Golden Harvest in 1986, after the filming of Heroes Shed no Tears in Thailand and Vietnam, where he managed to complete only two films, The Time You Need a Friend (1984) and Run Tiger Run (1985). Helped by producer/director Tsui Hark, who established a new production house, Film Workshop, he completed A Better Tomorrow (1986), the top grossing film in Hong Kong history, with Chow-Yun-fat in the main role. He achieved the peak of his domestic career in the late 1980s, with a series of box office hits, A Better Tomorrow II (1987), Just Heroes, Bullet in the Head and Hardboiled (1992). Woo acquired international reputation in the early 1990s, with The Killer, the most popular film in the Cantonese language, and moved from Hong Kong to Los Angeles in 1992, continuing his career in the United States.

Renowned for his mannerism, poetic of action and moral rhetoric, John Woo’s cinema is characterised by its meticulously controlled and highly disciplined narrative style. Numerous parallels with Leone, Peckinpah and Melville often accentuate the heroic aura and moral codes of Woo’s protagonists, the qualities characteristic for Hong Kong film of the 1970s, exploited in the work of Chang Cheh and other directors in martial arts genre. Woo’s comedies of the late 1970s simultaneously display the frequently overlooked populism of his narratives and joviality and playfulness of his characters, the indisputable influence of comedian Michael Hui. These two factors potently reemerge as the pivotal elements of Woo’s poetics in the subsequent phases of his work.


  1. Fredric Dannen and Barry Long, Hong Kong Babylon: An Insider’s Guide to the Hollywood of the East (Faber and Faber Ltd., 1997), p. 39.
  2. www.geocities.com/Hollywood., p. 2.
  3. Fredric Dannen and Barry Long, Hong Kong Babylon: An Insider’s Guide to the Hollywood of the East, p.12.
  4. www.geocities.com/Hollywood., p.2.
  5. ibid, p.2.
  6. Sasa Radojevic, “Pocetak zaraze” in Hepiend 1 (February 1996), p.29.
  7. Ibid., p.29.
  8. Fredric Dannen and Barry Long, Hong Kong Babylon: An Insider’s Guide to the Hollywood of the East, p.5.
  9. Sasa Radojevic, “Pocetak zaraze,” p. 29.
  10. Fredric Dannen and Barry Long, Hong Kong Babylon: An Insider’s Guide to the Hollywood of the East, p.233.

About The Author

Boris Trbic teaches Scriptwriting at Swinburne University of Technology (TAFE) and Screen Language at RMIT University (TAFE) in Melbourne. He is a reviewer on 3RRR’s Film Buffs’ Forecast, and writes screenplays, short fiction and occasional pieces about oriental carpets.

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