Hand of Death [IMDB] [HKMDB]
Hong Kong, 1976
Directed by John Woo
Starring Dorian Tan, James Tien, Jackie Chan
The third of four martial arts films John Woo directed during the 1970s, Hand of Death represents a unique gathering of Hong Kong action cinema icons. As well as being made by the man who would become the most acclaimed action director in the world, it also features “brothers” Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao in supporting roles. Even James Tien, known for his appearances in the Bruce Lee films The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972), shows up as the villain of the piece.
Little-seen due to its fairly poor availability in the west, Hand of Death is an intriguing early film for Woo. Significantly, it represents a meeting of the styles associated with two of Hong Kong's most notable studios. Woo made the film for Golden Harvest, and benefited from their opportunities for casting and outdoor shooting. However, in many ways Hand of Death retains the approach the director had learned while working under Chang Cheh for Shaw Brothers during the early 1970s.
Recently, Paul Bramhall of City on Fire published an important article on the corrosive impact of piracy on martial arts and action cinema. In it, Bramhall explains how the decline in the budgets of today's independent action films is caused in part by piracy, which cuts the profitability of new productions. The article also discusses the apparently low demand for new (albeit sometimes dubious) Blu-Ray releases of older Asian action films. I broadly agree with Bramhall's points and they're worth a read.
I wanted to pick up some of the issues in the article and and to look at what I think is the other side of the problems action cinema is facing. In addition to a crisis of piracy, we also have what might be called a crisis of availability. What I mean by this is that in 2016, Asian action cinema is less visible and less widely available in the West than it has been for years - despite the advent of video on demand. These two crises are feeding into one another, creating a downward spiral: as fewer Asian action films see legitimate releases in the West, more consumers watch pirate releases. This in turn creates a sense that legitimate releases are not viable, and fewer occur. Clearly, this is not the only reason for piracy; there will always be those that choose not to pay. But like piracy itself, the crisis of availabilty is, for me, contributing to the existential threat to Asian action cinema fandom in the Western world.