Review: Shaolin Hand Lock (1978)

David Chiang (who seems to have become rather a staple of my DVD viewing of late, for some reason) returns to the martial arts genre with this film, from rather prolific Shaws director Ho Meng-hua. Also in the mix are Lo Lieh, perennial Shaws actor, and Michael Chan (Chen Hui-min), who’s still acting today, most recently in Enter the Phoenix, The Spy Dad and You Shoot, I Shoot.

Our story follows (naturally) David Chiang’s character, a young man by the name of Li Cheng-ying, living and training with his sister (Chen Ping) in his father’s house. His father, played here by To Lung, is a martial arts master of some repute who has developed a secret, powerful technique called the Shaolin Handlock (this is actually the only reference to Shaolin in the film). Generally very effective, the move has a flaw: the practitioner’s abdomen is unprotected, leaving them open to attack by a knife thrust to the stomach. Chen-ying, who has learnt the technique from his father, is warned of this and told to wear protective metal plates, rendering him impervious to sudden knife thrusts.

After this set up, we can guess what happens to Chen-ying’s father, rather early in the piece. He’s assassinated by a man who knows of his secret attack, and of its weakness. Returning to the family house, Li discovers his father dead and resolves to track down the murderer. The trail leads to Ling Hao (Lo Lieh), a wealthy and powerful martial artist living in Thailand, who has ordered the deaths of all in Li’s family. Concealing his identity, Chen-ying inveigles his way into Ling’s household as a guard, despite the tensions between him and Ling’s head thug, Kun Shih (Michael Chan). It’s an excellent, confident piece of inveigling, too. First rate. Here the story really begins, as Chen-ying tries to discover the truth about his father and the villainous Ling Hao.

The film is a very standard piece of kung fu plotting, very much like many others I’ve seen. It seems to owe a particular debt to Bruce Lee’s films, too, with its modern setting and David Chiang’s brash, confident character. What sets it apart is the way that Ho Meng-hua adds exoticism to the rather standard story — as in Mighty Peking Man, he shoots in an exotic location (this time, Thailand) and adds some flashy stuntwork, with a number of motorcycle stunts and speedboat races down narrow rivers. The action choreography (by Tang Chia, who worked many times with Lau Kar-leung on Chang Cheh’s films) is capable, but doesn’t have the power or realism of many other Shaws films, particularly those with which Lau Kar-leung was involved.

David Chiang and Lo Lieh were never exceptional fighters, since neither had any formal training beyond what they picked up at Shaws, but they do alright. Much of the fighting involves hidden weapons and ‘special moves’, like the eponymous Handlock. Michael Chan acquits himself very well, as the brooding Kun Shih, first henchman to our villain, and comes off looking more impressive than Chiang in the fight scenes. There’s also a moment of full frontal female nudity (quite an unnecessary one, really), which came as a bit of a surprise.

Overall, it’s a fun film with some nice scenery and David Chiang’s considerable charisma shining forth at every opportunity — worth seeing for fans of his work and people interested in the location shots of Thailand. Note the huge number of extras (well done, Siren!) on the DVD, too: the documentaries are excellent.

7 aborted assassination attempts out of 10.
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