Shaolin Hand Lock [十字鎖喉手] (1978)
AKA Handlock

Starring David Chiang, Lo Lieh, Michael Chan Wai-Man, Chen Ping, Shum Lee-Mei, Karen Yip Leng-Chi, Dick Wei, Chan Shen, Kara Hui, Lak Apichat, Hsu Hsia, Austin Wai Tin-Chi

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate. The title sounds cool, but I don’t have faith in Ho Meng-Hua to deliver the Shaolin goods on par with Chang Cheh or Lau Kar-Leung.

Shaolin Hand Lock opens with promise. Master Li Bai (Dick Wei) observes his children practicing his signature technique: the Shaolin Hand Lock. It’s an odd one; the practitioner flips over the opponent’s head and lands behind them grappling their head. When I was in elementary school, we called it a headlock. You could also call it a choke hold. Shaolin Hand Lock calls it… the Shaolin Hand Lock! The only mention of Shaolin comes when they refer to this move, so I dug into the film’s Chinese title. It translates to something like Cross-shaped Choke Hold, and while that definitely doesn’t sound as cool as Shaolin Hand Lock, I wish they didn’t rile me up by invoking the hallowed name of Shaolin. The 1981 US release just called the film Handlock; they knew better!

Anyway, Master Li determines that his son, Li Cheng Ying (David Chiang), has perfected the Shaolin Hand Lock by discovering its single weakness: elbows to the gut. Master Li bestows his remedy, a vest outfitted with protective metal plates, to Cheng Ying… now the Shaolin Hand Lock is invincible! Seeing as this is only a couple minutes into the movie, I assumed that it was, in fact, not invincible, and I was correct. Silly kung fu movies. But before we get to all that, an assassin (Chan Shen) arrives at the Li household, murdering the now-defenseless Master Li and who he thinks are Li’s two children. Good thing Cheng Ying and his sister, Li Meng Ping (Chen Ping), just left for town. A solid revenge film set-up, but unfortunately the follow-through is incredibly generic, adhering closely to the “hero gets close to the villain by infiltrating their criminal organization” formula.

My friend Stephen likes to say that a work can be generic, if the creators “do generic well.” Shaolin Hand Lock is a great example of generic done mediocre. The story has a fair amount of soap opera dramatics, and it’s possible a stronger director could have wrangled a better movie out of Ni Kuang’s script. Even so, this isn’t anywhere close to Ni’s best work, but for someone working at his pace — he’s credited screenwriter on 18 1978 films — it’s okay to roll out a dud here and there. Shaolin Hand Lock isn’t even that bad, either, it’s just kinda lame in the changing landscape of better, more interesting films pushing the genre away from films in this early ’70s, Bruce Lee model. Adding to the old-school feel, part of the film was shot in Thailand, giving it the vibe of Chang Cheh’s early ’70s films that went to other countries and contained “travelogue-esque” sequences. Shaolin Hand Lock even has David Chiang visit some Thai ruins, suitcase in hand!

Shaolin Hand Lock wasn’t made in the early ’70s, though, and the action is pretty much the only place where this is evident. Tang Chia delivers some quality choreography throughout, with a finale that helps elevate the movie. The hand-to-hand interplay is well done, but it does lack the spark necessary to make the film more than a standard kung fu picture. People watch Drunken Master and become fans of the genre, while Shaolin Hand Lock might make someone take a few months off from kung fu movies. The fighting is good, but none of it is spectacular, even if the ridiculous Shaolin Hand Lock flip entertains every time David Chiang does it.

Shaolin Hand Lock probably has its fans, but I’m definitely not one of them. I found the majority of it boring, and it was a struggle to make it to the end. It’s for those who REALLY enjoy the early ’70s style of kung fu film, but for me there’s a ton of much better films to spend my time with.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Lau Kar-Leung’s Shaolin Mantis! Let’s hope it’s actually a Shaolin movie, and that it’s better than this one. I have a feeling it will be. See ya then (hopefully soon)!