[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.]
Earlier this month, I discussed One-Armed Swordsman and the impact it had on both Shaw Brothers studios and star Jimmy Wang-Yu. Wishing to still pay tribute to the legendary actor, we’ll be discussing the direct follow-up, the 1969 released Return of the One-Armed Swordsman. Ditching the more considered plot for strong action, this movie marks the beginning of director Chang Cheh’s desire for brutal violence in each of his films.
The plotting of Return doesn’t run as deep as in the first film. There’s no grand setup or horrible double-cross going on. Fang Kang (Wang-Yu) has given up the life of a swordsman and is living peacefully with his wife, Xiaoman (Chiao Chiao). At the same time, a gang known as the Eight Sword Kings is going around and challenging rival schools in a bid to conquer the martial arts world. After capturing a number of rival masters, the gang demands the remaining students cut their sword arms off and deliver them to the Sword Kings compound, or else their masters will be killed.
It’s really not the most coherent of plots (why does this gang specifically want sword arms?), but that’s not important. What matters is that Fang Kang’s legend lives throughout the community now, so the students naturally think to ask him for help. He initially refuses to provide assistance, which results in a rogue student capturing his wife and forcing Fang’s hand. Once Fang deals with that, the student chops off his arm as a sign of penance and Fang reluctantly agrees to help them.
As should be clear here, there’s no deep dive into Fang dealing with his disability or any development of him building a new life. This is a far more straightforward Kung Fu movie that glosses over character moments for intense action. Thankfully, the action and pacing here are some of the best of the pre-Kung Fu films from Shaw’s 60s era. Choreographed by the legendary Lau Kar-Leung, Returned of the One-Armed Swordsman goes hard in its action scenes.
You may have surmised from the name of the gang that there are eight individual leaders of the Swords Kings. Each one specializes in a different form of weaponry, meaning the battles all showcase some new technique or style that Fang must overcome. Before we even get there, Fang must contend with the likes of the Black and White swordsmen, portrayed by Fong Yau and Wu Ma respectively. They are like the primer to this gang of misfits who wield more than just standard straight blades.
As is often the case with Chang Cheh’s films, a lot of the battles are staged from wide angles with characters wearing clearly defined colors. Typically speaking, it’s not hard to figure out who is Fang and who is the main assailant of each scene. The action is sped up here, not to mention there is a bit of wire-work done to increase the spectacle. The standout moment of the film in my eyes is when Fang flies through a bamboo forest and slices down roughly 15 trees. It’s hilarious looking, but also badass as hell.
Another notable aspect of this is that it marks the first appearance of Shaw Brothers legend Ti Lung. Surprisingly, I don’t believe I’ve covered a film with him yet, but he would go on to dominate the 70s era with his co-star David Chiang, who also appears in this film in a cameo role. The duo was inseparable from Chang Cheh’s output and would be joined by Alexander Fu Sheng in 1974 for Five Shaolin Masters. That’s a story for a different time, though.
What strikes me the most about Return is the level of violence on display. I wouldn’t call it realistic by any means, but opponents are dismembered on a pretty regular basis. Some guys get their hands chopped off, a bunch of people get impaled by a giant bladed discus, and one dude even falls into a bamboo spike trap. Playing to the trend at the time, Chang Cheh included as much violence as possible and kept that trend rolling all the way into the 80s. He knew what fans of his work wanted and never disappointed in this regard.
Where this movie improves on the first is in the scale of the battles. The Shaw Brothers would continue to experiment with the number of combatants for different films, but this was the first time that filmgoers saw such a massive battle play out on screen. At one point, Fang is taking on maybe 20 people in a forest and it elevates him to heroic status. A brawl towards the end of the film is situated throughout a hotel and is just awe-inspiring in its sheer size.
One thing that does detract a little from the film is the recasting of certain actors. It was probably less noticeable on release, but Lau Kar-Leung plays another villain here and looks practically indistinguishable from his brief appearance in the last film. Tien Fang is also the final villain after having played Fang’s master in the first movie. When you watch these films back-to-back, it can be awkward and I even started creating my own backstory where Ru-Feng lost his mind and sought revenge for Fang becoming better than him.
The thing is, the Hong Kong film industry was rather small during this period. As author James Oliver writes in his introductory piece for Eureka’s release of Dreadnaught, there were only roughly 15,000 people working in this industry in the early 1990s. Remove nearly thirty years and that number probably drops by half. With such a small pool of talent, it’s inevitable that the same faces would show up so frequently.
While certainly distracting, it never undoes what Returned of the One-Armed Swordsman gets so right. It’s no surprise that choreographer Lau Kar-Leung would become an acclaimed director in his time once you watch this film. For being more than half a century old, this movie holds up brilliantly. In my mind, it’s the best of the trilogy with the follow-up, New One-Armed Swordsman, coming in a close second. There is practically no depth here, but the battles are just so ferocious.
I wish I had more to say, but I wouldn’t want to spoil any of the battles. Director Chang Cheh wasn’t exactly known for having an understanding of filming techniques, either, so most of the creative angles were just a way to mix things up. Even with that level of basicness, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman remains an excellent film from the early era of Shaw that fans of Kung Fu cinema owe it to themselves to watch.
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