Shaolin Hand Lock (1978) Review

This movie really should be renamed David Chiang on a Thailand vacation. It’s not a particularly great movie especially in the genre of kung fu but if you like David Chiang and/or Lo Lieh, you might want to check it out as another Shaw Brothers movie. But it’s surprisingly not a Chang Cheh flick which is why outside of a few scenes, this movie isn’t memorable.

The movie is about a son who has learned a family technique called (unsurprisingly) the Shaolin Hand Lock. The move is a guy doing a standing moonsault over their opponent, cinching in a chokehold and using their knee to add pressure to the back to make the move fatal. However, it has an inherent flaw: the sides of the user. So David Chiang’s father demonstrates this flaw to David as well as the counter, which is actually smart in having the user wear metal sheets on his sides. Of course, this specialized vest is hidden under ones shirt but David’s father (played by Dick Wei) gives it to David regardless.

As David and his sister go off on an errand, a mysterious fellow stops over by their home and assassinates Dick Wei. Two other friends, one played by Kara Hui, end up jobbing to this guy who has cracked the code of the Shaolin Hand Lock. Since Dick Wei gave his armor away to his son, he gets fatally stabbed. Now, why he only possessed a single vest is anyone’s guess but the murderer triumphs and he rides into the sunset while his original driver freaks out and seeks David to unveil his father’s murder. With the murderer’s description in hand, David seeks his father’s murderer and locates him at a brothel where he not only gains a degree of revenge but uncovers the source of the assassination, which leads David to Thailand.

A good chunk of the plot is David going undercover and tricking his way into the services of Lo Lieh, who is the villain. With all his wealth from smuggling, Lo Lieh has a grand home and is well guarded, leading David into the dilemma of determining a way to infiltrate and defeat his father’s killer. In the typical David Chiang fashion, he uses a combination of charm, deception and bad kung fu that easily overpowers everyone except the main villain to become a guard for Lo Lieh.

There are a few additional mysterious characters in this compound, including Michael Chan Wai-Man, Lo Lieh’s daughter and a blind woman, who we later find out is Lo Lieh’s wife. David tries a few unsuccessful assassination attempts as a quasi-ninja figure but is defeated. In one case, he learns that Lo Lieh has an additional means for countering the Shaolin Hand Lock move in the form of a boot dagger. That injures David and forces him to be more cautious in his approaches against his enemy. At the same time, Michael begins to suspect David and even tries to kick David’s bad leg for which David has to bear some pain before fighting back. At that point, his disguise isn’t blown but there’s more of a rift between Michael and David as the seeds of doubt are sewn between them.

Along the way, David’s sister makes her own attempt at Lo Lieh’s life but is thwarted and badly injured. David manages to save the sister and pursue her on one of these river boats (hence the David on vacation in Thailand bit) and helps her get away. He later meets up with his sister to discourage her from immediately seeking revenge.

While that goes on, we get a little information on the blind woman being Lo Lieh’s wife. Inexplicably, Lo Lieh frequently beats her while she calls him a monster. Besides this bit of information, we find out that Lo Lieh has a private gym that no one can enter. Eventually, David manages to break into the gym to learn that Lo Lieh has a dummy he practices his own kung fu against. Since the guards leave the premise to chase an intruder, David is able to do this. But Lo Lieh discovers the break in and has another confrontation with David as a ninja. Eventually, David makes his escape, using the window to run out.

As the guards go to find out what the noise is, David encounters Michael and knocks him down temporarily. Lo Lieh finds Michael on the ground and suspects him whereas Michael tries to tell his side of the story. Eventually, Lo Lieh decides to abuse his wife a little more and wants to end her life. Entrusting David to this task, Lo Lieh wants to keep this business quiet. That gives more suspicion to Michael as he sees the conversation but has no context.

The following day, David escorts the wife on a river boat and admits his purpose. Of course, David has no reason to perform this task and uses the opportunity to learn more. He takes her to a Buddhist temple where his sister is as she could help protect the wife. Both Michael and the young daughter of Lo Lieh try to track down the mother. This leads to David having a fight with Michael again. However, David returns to the house while Michael goes to the mother to learn about his true identity. Apparently, everyone is connected with her being the mom to them all. David doesn’t yet get this piece of critical information but Michael finds out the truth on how he was separated from his family.

Even though the truth has come out, Michael still needs to return as he is a guard. He returns with his sister who is able to talk to Lo Lieh but Michael is denied access. David comes out to speak with Michael but does not try anything just yet. The sister accuses Lo Lieh of trying to have her mother murdered and all the brutality and Lo Lieh no longer has any reason to hide himself. That leaves Michael to a 1v1 confrontation with Lo Lieh, but not before telling David he wants to speak with him later. David gives Michael a dagger or short sword but Michael is easily defeated. During all of this, Lo Lieh makes his own accusations against David and it’s David’s turn to reveal his true purpose in gaining revenge for his father. He too is defeated in a 1v1 against Lo and makes his escape. That leaves Lo with his guards and he orders them to kill David.

David returns and has the chance to speak with Michael to find the truth that he’s the brother. They figure that the only way to defeat Lo is to combine strength and use an old warehouse as a trap. Before that though, they need to get rid of the last of the key guards. In turn, David goes out to the market to pick up food in a large brown potato bag while three of Lo’s henchmen track David down. David manages to easily defeat two of them in isolation so he can have a 1v1 fight with Lo’s Thai bodyguard, who was established earlier as a clear rival and inferior to David. David beats the crap out of this guy who sells his ass off to David’s ego. I mean, David just kicks the guy in the throat and the jobber goes down.

At night, David returns to the home but on the rooftop. He bears an oversized straw sack slung over his shoulders and tosses the thing unceremoniously to the ground. The remaining guards are freaked out and check on the noise as Lo Lieh also comes to see the commotion. The guards unravel the tied off top to find that Thai bodyguard jobber inside. Along with him is a letter indicating the challenge for Lo Lieh to meet David and Michael at the warehouse.

You can probably guess the rest. Both David and Michael take a bit of a beating. They manage to wrest away the hidden elbow daggers but get cut up. Then David makes his first move to unleash the Shaolin Hand Lock only to again get thwarted by a long hidden shoe dagger. Poor Michael gets dumped to the bottom floor but he gets a metal can to neutralize the dagger. Without the edge being a danger anymore, Michael is able to restrain Lo’s leg to allow to do a worthless somersault and lock in the Shaolin Hand Lock while successfully planting a knee into Lo Lieh’s back. You get a semi-satisfying neck break sound as Lo goes limp. Then the two three other women enter to join them in examining the dead Lo.

The immediate thought I had was David’s sister not showing up earlier. She’s the first one through the door and actually knows decent kung fu and wanted revenge. But she was useless during this whole fight while David and especially Michael got torn to shreds. I can understand the younger sister hanging back with the mother as protection but a three on one situation might’ve been better.

I guess outside of everyone except poor Kara Hui surviving, that was an atypical Shaw Brothers ending. If it was Chang Cheh directing, probably everyone except possibly the brother or David would’ve died along the way. This movie reminded me slightly of another David Chiang movie called Vengeance because of the whole family revenge motif. But this one was a little more warped in the number of family members that were coincidentally related.

None of the fights were memorable. Obviously, the finishing move was memorable because it’s the fucking name of the movie. But in all honesty, that move sucked. It’s just a lame chokehold that could easily be countered. And the fact that David couldn’t counter what he already knew in the form of the leg attack just made the move and David seem lamer. Michael Chan Wai-Man is a far better and more vicious bad ass in the Five Element Ninja. Here, he looked like some random jobber with bad hair. His kung fu sucked and he was presented as just some worthless side kick on both camps.

Maybe the only kind of cool thing about this movie was seeing them in Thailand. There’s a few cultural moments like a dance and the river boat scenery. But you don’t get a good feeling overall.

Also, one of the things that really bothered me was how the movie was more modern as indicated by the motorized boats and trucks. Yet David getting away with literal murder even in some abandoned looking area bothered me. It’s like that other movie I reviewed Rage of the Dragon where people are getting killed left and right but there’s no police officers or authorities. I get on the compound that the fights can be isolated but there’s never any real sense of authority. At least with a movie like the Chinatown Kid with Fu Sheng, you get the police showing up in several instances as key parts of the plot. Here, they are nonexistent.

Probably, the only reason I remembered anything about this movie a long time ago is that there’s the scene with the guy getting tossed in a strange sack off the rooftop. It reminded me of another kung fu movie called Challenge of Death because some guy got tossed over a wall in a sack there too. And I recall seeing David in that market place carrying that potato sack. All this time until I got the VHS version in the early 2000s, I had thought David used that potato sack to stuff that Thai bodyguard. I’m surprised that he didn’t use it because it would’ve been a bit of foreshadowing (or maybe it was). Also, what’s funny is that in Challenge of Death, the guy that was put in a sack was gagged by a letter/message as an invitation for a fight too.

At any rate, this isn’t a great movie. Most of it is boring. The only person I truly cared about (Kara Hui) jobs early on. There’s only that one memorable scene for me and the rest just feels like David Chiang’s ego floating along that nondescript dirty river. I prefer his earlier stuff but here it just felt like him mailing it in.

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