The One Armed Swordsman - After raising the curtain with King Hu's Come Drink with Me at Cannes in 2002, Celestial have been releasing a steady stream of re-mastered classics from the Shaw Brothers library, notable releases have included the landmark Five Venoms and 36th Chamber of Shaolin. In June 2004, we saw Celestial release another jewel in their crown, Chang Cheh's One Armed Swordsman (1967). This hugely anticipated release saw another film benefiting from a beautifully restored print and a host of extras. As if that was not enough, Celestial also launched a One Armed Swordsman Student Animation Competition. This invited students from the South-East region to submit an animated short film that is themed on the One Armed Swordsman. The panel of judges for the competition featured the likes of Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) and William Pfeiffer (CEO of Celestial Pictures). The lucky winner received US $1,000 but much more importantly, they had their animation used as a special feature on this high profile release!
Chang Cheh's One Armed Swordsman is widely regarded as a ground breaking film for director, cast and genre. Many hail this movie as the first 'genuine' martial arts movie, but for me this is a trivial accolade. The reason why this movie is so eagerly anticipated across the globe is because this movie became the very lifeblood of Hong Kong film making for the following twenty years. The likes of King Hu and Chor Yuen may have defined the fantastical and delicate direction of Asian film-making, but few films come closer to the true essence of Hong Kong cinema within the period. This is further demonstrated by its record-breaking success at the box office, grossing over HK $1million during its cinematic release. Chang Cheh's One Armed Swordsman is at the raw unfiltered edge of powerful cinema, featuring themes that went on to define the whole martial arts genre.
Jimmy Wang Yu plays Fang Kang, an orphaned student at the Golden Sword School. He is given a 'scholarship' at the school after Fang Kang's father saves Master Chi Ju Fung (Tien Feng) from an invading gang. However, the father dies from his wounds and Fang's only reminder of him is the broken sword that he used in his final battle. The orphan's privileged position within the school brings resentment and scorn upon Fang Kang who is victimised and taunted by his fellow pupils (see an early on-screen appearance from Lau Kar Leung). Pei (Lisa Chiao Chiao) plays the spoilt daughter of Master Chi, who makes advances on the retiring Fang Kang. The emotions are whipped into frenzy by the news that Master Chi needs a successor for his school.
Wishing to avoid trouble and finding his position unbearable, Fang Kang makes the decision to leave the place that has always been his home. Before he gets the chance to make a clean get-away he is challenged in the woods by his jealous classmates and the master's impetuous daughter. What should have been a short and decisive confrontation is turned into a tortuous affair. In a moment of embarrassment and rage Pei grabs her sword and makes a wild lunge at Fang. After a short bout of combat we see the unarmed Fang become quite literally 'unarmed' as his right arm is cleanly severed from his body. The wounded Fang flees from the scene to leave Pei and the students in a bloody mess!
Master Chi follows the footprints in the snow to arrive on the scene too late to avoid the tragedy. He follows the trail of blood which stops on the bridge. They can only assume that Fang has plunged to a watery grave. Fortune shone on Fang as he fell into the boat of a peasant woman Hsiao Man (Pan Yinze). She nurtures the hero back to health and falls in love with him. As Fang regains his health he becomes bitter and dejected at the prospect of life as a cripple, after realising that he cannot even protect Hsiao Man from common rogues. Hsiao Man takes pity on Fang's plight and reluctantly gives him her father's sword fighting manual. Fang trains relentlessly to become a supreme left-handed martial artist using the manual and his father's broken sword.
Whilst Fang is busy rebuilding his life and his honour, the same gang that killed Fang's father has devised a new weapon that can defeat the right-handed Golden Sword technique. This exotic new weapon clamps onto the sword allowing the rogue to stab the exposed and defenceless student. The leader of the gang, Long Armed Devil, decides that the time to strike will be as Master Chi prepares for his 55th birthday. The only thing that could possibly prevent him from succeeding would be a left handed martial artist with a broken sword!!! Needless to say, the ending is a bloody and brutal affair as the crippled Fang once again confronts the gang which killed his father and threatens to destroy his master's school. There is a lot more to the ending than might be expected, but some things are best seen first-hand!
On paper, such a film may sound like another run of the mill revenge yarn, but One Armed Swordsman began what can be most accurately described as a revolution in the Hong Kong film industry. The film unashamedly draws on the Spaghetti Western and Samurai traditions for influence, with a lone hero who has a lot more to fight for than just his life. This marked a break-through for the scriptwriters, especially Ni Kuang who was behind many Shaw Brothers classics for the next decade (plus Golden Harvest's Fist of Fury). There was a new blueprint for success at Shaw Brothers and it was pure and powerful revenge. From a visual perspective, the bloody action looks rather mechanical and protracted by modern standards, but was a significant achievement at the time. The collaboration of Tong Gaai and Lau Kar Leung went onto choreograph many of Chang Cheh's most successful films and of course we all know about Lau Kar Leung's success as a director in his own right. The overall visual impact is crucial to the effectiveness of the film. The seasons reflect the journey of the hero, as he moves from tragedy (winter) to rejuvenation (spring) and hero (summer). This is supported by the music by Wang Fu-Ling, which somehow manages to be funky yet dramatic at the same time.
At the heart of One Armed Swordsman are many themes that became archetypal for martial arts movies for years to come. The idea of the lone hero against the many is taken a stage further by him being crippled. This triumph against adversity had already proved hugely popular with the success of the blind masseur, Zatoichi, in Japan . Interestingly enough, the 22nd instalment of the Zatoichi series saw him pitted against the One Armed Swordsman (played again by Wang Yu) however they needed to shoot two alternate endings to appease both Chinese and Japanese audiences! The popularity of cripples becoming martial arts experts never abated and Wang Yu cast himself as the One Armed Boxer a few years later.
The film gives an early glimpse to Chang Cheh's love of the male form, as former swimming champion Wang Yu is paraded in all his topless glory in his quest for revenge. Fang's demise significantly begins only when he displays his topless form within the school in front of Master Chi's daughter. One Armed Swordsman gives an early glimpse of training sequences that were to become the staple diets of many classics (36th Chamber of Shaolin, Invincible Shaolin, Drunken Master). Even more importantly, this began the blossoming of Chang Cheh's love affair with bizarre and spectacular weapons, a love that never left him.
The Armed Swordsman's impact stretched well beyond the Shaw Brothers stable, with many ideas filtering their way across to the Golden Harvest blockbusters of the late seventies, not to mention Tsui Hark's remake, The Blade, in 1995. Snake in the Eagle's Shadow pits Jackie Chan as the victimised and bullied pupil who returns after his training to save the school and his master (see also Tony Liu's The Master). Another technique used to excellent effect in One Armed Swordsman, is concealing the face of the gang leader, Long Armed Devil, until the climax of the film. This can also be seen in Yuen Woo Ping's hugely entertaining Buddhist Fist with the evil Mr Chen. Perhaps this film's influence stretched as far as Rocky training 'South-paw' in Rocky II in order to defeat the almighty Apollo Creed!
For those of you who already own Celestial titles it will come as no surprise that this is a beautiful rendering of a film nearly 40 years old. You can reach for your snowy bootleg with dodgy English dubbing and burnt on Dutch subtitles and throw it into the bin! The English subtitles are much improved on earlier Celestial titles and the DD2.0 comes across very well. The extras are more than the average title with a good Chang Cheh featurette, some short films from the competition mentioned above and a range of trailers, stills and info. Without a doubt this is Celestial's best disc, which is appropriate for one of the best martial arts movies ever.
Jimmy Wang Yu reading this article, which was first published in Vengeance Magazine
One Armed Swordsman's place in history is assured. Virtually every aspect of this film has been exceeded and improved upon by later offerings, but this is where it all began in its primitive violent form. The film managed to spawn several memorable sequels starring Wang Yu and / or David Chiang, and also gave future impetus to Wang Yu's One Armed Boxer series. The runaway success of the movie was a spring board for many of the cast and crew, and the major themes of the film were validated and imitated for decades to come. With One Armed Swordsman the ultimate anti-hero was born; a macho, resolute, honour-bound character who had little to live for, but a lot to die for.
"Violence breeds violence, there never is an end to it" - Fang Kang