[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
Originally this month, I was planning on looking at Project A and Dragon’s Forever to complete the trilogy of Jackie Chan/Sammo Hung/Yuen Biao films I started with Wheels on Meals years ago. While I did watch the former, I had a change of heart about the latter due to some very unfortunate news. Legendary actor Jimmy Wang Yu, known for films such as The One-Armed Boxer and Master of the Flying Guillotine, passed away on the morning of April 5, 2022, at the age of 79. Having made a monumental mark on the Hong Kong film industry, I felt the need to honor him this month as one of his films is the very reason I’m even so involved with these movies.
It’s also kind of eerie that a few days before Wang Yu’s death, my close friend wanted to rewatch the One-Armed Swordsman trilogy. A series of films that would quickly propel both Shaw Brothers studio and Wang Yu to stardom, it’s surprising that I’ve waited this long to highlight them. We’ll only be going over the first and second film this month as the third involves a change in lead actor due to Wang Yu breaking his contract with Shaw Brothers and going independent, but that’s fine. We’ll get to New One-Armed Swordsman eventually.
As I’ve likely made clear numerous times now, when I got into collecting Kung Fu movies around 2004, Celestial Pictures was releasing a line of remastered DVDs in China. Sometime in 2005, the company put out a rather handsome-looking boxset of the One-Armed Swordsman trilogy and I eagerly snatched it. Having heard about the impact these films had, my expectations were high for what would play out. Directed by the legendary Chang Cheh, these movies are packed to the brim with manly men and bloodshed. In fact, the films get more violent as they go on.
One-Armed Swordsman is probably the most thematically dense of the trilogy. Released in 1967 (just one year after Come Drink With Me laid the groundwork for what a martial arts film should be), the movie isn’t non-stop action. In fact, the movie begins with the interpersonal drama between main character Fang Kang (Wang Yu), and his master’s daughter, Pei-Er (Pan Yin-Tze).
In a flashback sequence, Ru-Feng (Tien Feng) is threatened by a group of bandits that are looking to take his life. A servant sacrifices himself and asks the master to look after his child, Fang Kang. Years later, Fang has become the favorite student of Feng’s while his daughter and her classmates belittle him for coming from a poor family. Fang decides one night that he should leave to spare his master the shame and in a confrontation with Pei-Er, she ends up dismembering his right arm and leaving him for dead.
What has always stuck with me about that scene is the elaborate set design that Shaw Brothers employed. I’ve noted this in retrospectives on other films, but Shaw really spared no expense when it came to certain tentpole releases. One-Armed Swordsman was primed for the big time and it shows in practically every scene. The infamous arm severing takes place in a completely staged forest complete with snow, bushes, dark ambiance, and a small stream. Despite being in a small-ish room, it feels like a living world.
From there, the story shifts focus onto Fang’s journey through acceptance and recovery as he learns to cope with his new disability. Stumbling away from the scene of the accident, he falls into a boat piloted by a peasant girl named Xiaoman (Chiao Chiao). With the help of her assistant, Xiaoman nurses Fang back to health, and the two begin to form a relationship. It’s tough going at first, but eventually, Xiaoman shares a martial arts manual her father left her and Fang develops his own one-armed style.
All of this is hardly deep by modern standards, but One-Armed Swordsman put a lot more emphasis on its main character than other contemporary films. For the past few months, I’ve been digging into the special features present on discs from Eureka, Arrow, and 88 Films and have learned some new things about the Hong Kong film industry. For one, early film projects were actually a way to replicate serials since most people in Hong Kong did not have cable television. Secondly, the directors behind these films often had no idea about the language of cinema, so they just shot whatever and called it a day.
Director Chang Cheh wasn’t really a master of the craft, but his influence on Hong Kong cinema is profound. For one, he was the first to really let other people handle things like choreography and staging. Secondly, he also attempted to use stylized shots for specific scenes, resulting in something that looks much better than the ramshackle production would have you think. One-Armed Swordsman probably doesn’t compare to the work King Hu was doing, but it also delivers on its story and action in a pulpy fashion that would captivate audiences of the day.
In a scene roughly at the end of the second act, Fang ends up needing to rescue Pei-Er from some bandits and he deals with them in swift fashion. They see his disability, assume he is weak, and are treated to their hands being dismembered in a flash. It’s the kind of gratuitous violence that filmgoers of the era had never seen and that was filmed in a fashion similar to Japanese samurai movies. At the offices of Shaw Brothers, the higher-ups would use a private screening room to partake of Zatoichi films in their spare time. They noted the high production values and wanted to emulate that, resulting in One-Armed Swordsman. Coincidentally enough, Wang Yu would make a crossover film with Zatoichi star Shintaro Katsu titled Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman just a few years later.
That outside influence helped give One-Armed Swordsman its bold identity. Instead of embracing the cheap and quick fashion that Hong Kong cinema was previously about, Cheh shot for the fences and hit a home run. The last third of the movie sort of devolves into a typical revenge plot, though I say “typical” in a retrospective manner. At the time, there was nothing like this on Hong Kong screens. Come Drink With Me set the standard and One-Armed Swordsman soared over it.
Previous Shaw Brothers films stuck to tradition, but One-Armed Swordsman used the wuxia template to forge a new direction. You still have some of the supernatural feats with characters flying around a bit, but then you also have the more grounded fight scenes and anachronistic weaponry. The villains devise some plan to use hook swords to stifle Fang’s master and it’s so bizarre and hilarious. How the hell did they have the technology to create locking swords in what appears to be the Song Dynasty?
There’s also Fang’s sort of anti-hero vibe. The traditions of wuxia films dictate that the hero be righteous and follow the Confucian code, but Fang will murder you if you cross him. The battles are mostly in self-defense, but it’s far bloodier and darker than everything that came before. This would follow Cheh’s non-wuxia works in the 70s, setting the template for Shaw Brothers for more than a decade. Audiences ate it up.
Once you watch One-Armed Swordsman, it’s not hard to see why. As much as technology and filming techniques have improved movies over the years with regard to quality and clarity, you’ll never be able to beat the simplicity of a story where a guy on a mission kills the evildoers. The only thing a remake of this movie could add would be tighter fight scenes. Everything else, from characters to themes to drama, is all here.
Some of that would be lost in the sequel, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, but then it would also gain more kinetic battles. We’ll save that discussion for the next column, though.
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