Leaving even King Hu’s COME DRINK WITH ME behind, Chang Cheh’s THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN is the most significant wuxia film in Hong Kong film history. In a single stroke, Chang reasserted the male lead in a genre dominated by women and established a new and brutal level of violence inspired by Japanese chambara and the films of Sam Pechinpah.
The film was a huge hit in Asia where it became the first Hong Kong film to gross $1 million at the box office. This was in large part due to its popularity among youth who undoubtedly responded to the film’s strong theme of alienation at a time when a wide generational divide was being felt all over the world.
After appearing in several of Chang Cheh’s early swordplay films, former swimmer Jimmy Wang Yu emerged from THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN as the region’s reigning martial arts star and he would hold onto that position until Bruce Lee came along in 1971. Although quite athletic, Wang Yu was not known as a martial artist and as this film shows, the strength of his performance rests more in attitude and posture than elaborately-choreographed moves. It’s good enough.
Bandits attack the martial household of Qi Rufeng (Tien Feng) after he is poisoned and his servant Fang Cheng (Ku Feng) successfully defends him, but is mortally wounded in the process. His dying wish is met when Rufeng agrees to adopt Cheng’s son Gang and train him in martial arts. All Cheng leaves behind for his son is a sword broken in battle.
As a young adult, Gang (Wang Yu) is Rufeng’s most promising pupil but disliked by his peers and toyed with by Rufeng’s spoiled daughter Pei Er (Pan Yingzi). As a result, Gang decides to leave, but is met in the night by his two sword brothers and Pei Er. In a moment that everyone in attendance lives to regret, Pei Er recklessly lashes out at Gang when his guard is down and cuts his right arm off. In shock, Gang stumbles away.
Gang is rescued by a young woman named Xiaoman (Chiao Chiao) who helps him to recover mentally, physically and emotionally. Gang is able to overcome his new handicap when Xiaoman gives him her father’s kung fu manual. Though half of it is burned away, the remaining portion describes a left-handed fighting technique that requires the use of a second short sword.
With his father’s broken sword in hand and his newfound skill, Gang regains his confidence while promising Xiaoman to give up a life in the martial world. This promise is short-lived when Gang learns that the bandits, who are led by Smiling Tiger (Tong Dik) and Long-Armed Devil (Yeung Chi-hing), are returning again to kill his master. Though scorned and maimed by the clan he had hoped to never see again, Gang returns triumphantly to honor his father’s loyalty, his master’s benevolence and his own pride.
In some ways, THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN is a brilliant martial arts film and in others, it’s dated and a tad silly. I’m in agreement with filmmaker Tsui Hark when he criticizes the fact that a sword hero of Gang’s stature should so easily fall prey to a petty woman with significantly-less martial skill. In Tsui’s 1995 remake THE BLADE, the hero (Vincent Zhou) looses his arm while rescuing his master’s daughter from the bandits who overwhelm him.
The swordplay in Chang’s film is choreographed by emerging talents Lau Kar-leung and Tang Chia and is much better than most of the action seen in other films of the era, but it’s still steeped in stiff, pre-’70s theatrics. The dueling remains fun thanks to the energy and creativity that’s shown. Old school enthusiasts will surely appreciate seeing a young Lau Kar-leung in a named role as one of the leading bandit cronies.
The single-greatest scene in the film is where Wang Yu faces bandits in a roadside tea stand. It’s in part a nod to the famous teahouse encounter in COME DRINK WITH ME, shot the previous year, but adds a kinetic brutality and badass factor rarely seen and trumped only by Bruce Lee’s antics. I would rate this scene as one of the greatest in martial arts film history.
Other aspects that do not sit well with me include the overacting of Chiao Chiao as Wang Yu’s love interest. The mostly well-written story adds her strong distaste of the martial world, born from the death of her father over nothing more than a kung fu manual. That makes sense, but when she rushes off to cry whenever Wang Yu appears on the verge of returning to his old life, I just crack up. Similarly, Pan Yingzi’s hot and cold treatment towards Wang Yu just doesn’t translate, especially when she rashly cuts his arm off over nothing more than feeling belittled. All of this simplified overacting works for the stage, but just comes off as corny when seen in the more intimate setting of a movie. There are also some unintentionally funny lines, likely made so by a combination of poor translation to English and dated colloquialisms.
The main gimmick of the film is the bandits’ use of a clamping sword to defeat the wide-bladed swords used by the Qi clan. Wuxia films always have their esoteric styles and unique weapons and this one was likely the invention of the talented co-action director Tang Chia. All good and well, but Chang relies too heavily on this trick. If all great swordsmen where so dependent on their swords, there would be no “Li Mu-bai” (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) or “Nameless” (HERO). Unlike the classical Japanese swordsman, the soul of a Chinese swordsman resides in their heart, not their sword. That’s where Chang Cheh comes up short by relying too much on Japanese Bushido influences. There are plenty of bare-chested heroics here, but little Chinese martial philosophy.
There is still much to be said for THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN as a classic swordplay film. Chang Cheh brought together some of the best elements of both Japanese and Chinese martial arts films and infused a spirit of youthful angst. This has had a tremendous impact on wuxia films since. Chang directed two sequels, one with Wang Yu returning in 1969 and again in 1971 with his second generation star David Chiang in the lead. Wang Yu eventually left Shaw Brothers after starring in ONE-ARMED BOXER that same year. He reprised his ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN role when he joined Japanese action star Shintaro Katsu for an epic meeting of screen heroes in ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1971) and then again in 1976 to face Chiang for the Taiwanese production ONE-ARMED SWORDSMEN.REVIEW: One-Armed Swordsman (1967),
Chang Cheh • Genre: Wuxia • Jimmy Wang Yu • One-Armed Swordsman (1967) • Shaw Brothers