One-Armed Swordsman Review
|Return of the One-Armed Swordsman|
|New One-Armed Swordsman|
It is hard to imagine the impact this feature had upon its release in 1967. While King Hu had unleashed the seminal classic Come Drink With Me a year earlier, with its female protagonist, Chang Cheh was looking to produce a more grounded, macho style of Swordplay film with the focus primarily on specific sword fighting techniques. Taking influences from US and Japanese cinema, One Armed Swordsman became the first film to take over (HK)$1million at the local Box Office and its own influence on the Martial Arts genre is immeasurable. Instantly changing the face of HK action cinema it became the blueprint for a whole new style of Swordplay films with youthful anti-heroes and emphasis on the fighting styles and bloodshed.
Jimmy Wang Yu plays Fang Gang, adopted son and pupil of rich and famous Sword master Qi Ru-feng (Tien Feng), but life is difficult for our hero because his fellow students and spoilt adoptive sister Qi Pei (Pan Ying-tzu) disapprove of a “commoner” being a member of such a prestigious school. Coming to the irrational conclusion that he is only causing trouble for his master Fang decides to run away, but ends up running into his fellow students. In the ensuing confrontation Pei petulantly slashes at the defenseless Fang, severing his right arm. Deeply wounded and dazed Fang staggers away to a nearby bridge and falls, not to his death, but onto the passing boat of Xiao Man (Chiao Chiao). She nurses him back to health and love blossoms between the two, but Fang cannot fully accept his handicap, Martial Arts is all he has ever known. Luckily for him though Xiao inherited a secret Kung Fu manual from her late father, and in an even more improbable coincidence the manual was burnt leaving only the sword moves for the left arm. With this Fang develops a new one-armed technique that makes him stronger than ever. It’s a good job as well, because 2 old enemies of his master, Ru-feng, have arrived in town and are plotting to kill their old nemesis with a specially created sword locking technique.
Ostensibly a character drama for the opening half, the blurb on the back of the box mentions that Fang getting his arm cut off symbolised teenage alienation and it would seem it is this theme which pervades the opening act. Cheng handles all this very well, backing up the performances with subtle imagery and meticulous staging. He introduces the older Fang as a rebellious outcast by revealing him purposefully dressed down in rough clothing and completing chores while his elegantly attired fellow students pour scorn upon him. These students are also seen as outcasts when it’s revealed that their own fathers have the funds and skills to teach their sons but chose to have them raised by master Ru-feng instead. Likewise Pei is alienated by her unrequited love for Fang, so even though the arm severing occurs early in the film you never feel that Chang didn’t provide enough character motivation for such a petulant act. Perhaps the most alienated of all characters though is the love interest, Xiao Man. A woman who has no idea of her own heritage because her father died protecting his teacher’s Kung Fu manual and mother refused to reveal what her family name was. She is a victim of the ethics of martial society, another major theme of the film. Even though she loves Fang and aids him in his recovery, she’s all too aware that once he has mastered the one-armed sword style he will eventually choose his duty to protect his old master over her. This realisation casts a sombre shadow over the romantic proceedings. It is this attention to the characters, combined with a baroque, operatic sense of style and drama that raised Chang’s work above the glut of Swordplay and Kung fu movies that appeared in the following decades.
However, while the 1st act is thematically rich and subtly developed the 2nd act changes focus from strictly Fang’s plight to also that of the main villain’s evil scheme. It is here that the pace of the film falters because the antagonists aren’t nearly as well developed as the protagonists, with the only interesting thing about the main villain being that Chang opted to shoot him from behind until the final scenes so he remains somewhat of an enigma. Of course, this wouldn’t ordinarily slow down a Martial Arts film because the action should kick into high gear once the villains arrive, but unfortunately HK film techniques in the late 60’s weren’t quite as sophisticated back in 1967 and the action sequences have not aged well at all. The pacing is also bogged down by a subplot involving the kidnap of Pei, which really serves no purpose other than to show Fang rebuking her affections for one last time. It also demonstrates that Fang still feels a sense of duty towards his adoptive father, but there isn’t any specific need for Chang Cheh to show that at this point because he repeats these sentiments later in the finale and Wang Yu’s performance aptly conveys the turmoil of the character anyway. Subtly capturing the brooding self pity and filial devotion of Fang it’s no surprise that this was the role that catapulted Wang Yu to superstardom and he would go on to make his own indelible impression on the Martial Arts genre.
Thankfully things get back on track with a vengeance in the closing act as Fang stumbles across the dastardly plot to kill his master, casts aside his romantic plans (like all good Chang Cheh heroes should) and strides into battle to save the day or die trying. Perhaps choosing quantity over quality, no fewer than four action set pieces are thrown at viewers, the most impressive of which being a confrontation between Fang and a group of henchmen in a teahouse which is basked in glorious golden light and shot pretty much handheld with the use of Dutch angles to give a sense of space to the cramped environment, it’s breathtaking stuff. Although I have criticized the earlier action sequences it’s clear that fight choreographers Lau Kar-leung and Tong Kai did well considering the limitations of the time. Wang Yu was a champion swimmer rather than a trained Martial Artist and although he certainly had the physicality for the part he didn’t have particularly good technique and coupled with some rather simplistic choreography in the early scenes it painfully shows. The later scenes are shot with much more verve though and the idea of a sword lock/dagger combination to tackle master Ru-feng’s superior sword technique was fresh and inventive. Chang Cheh’s action sequences always had a “hyper-real” style, which meant characters could perform some rather ludicrous physical feats (whilst not having the out & out ability to fly) and this might be the reason the choreographers didn’t worry about complex movements for the one-armed sword technique. Fang just launches himself at opponents sword-first, which is pretty boring and encourages quick edits. The most impressive action sequences are those where you don’t notice the cuts, in this film they can be very forceful at times. Despite all this the finale certainly packs an emotional wallop as the director ties up all his themes in an extremely satisfying manner.
PresentationReleased as part of the One-Armed Trilogy Boxset by IVL/Celestial this title is currently unavailable on individual DVD release. To view reviews for the other titles in the boxset, please use the navigational banner at the top or the drop-down menu at the bottom of this review.
Presented anamorphically in it’s original 2.38:1 Shawscope ratio the film has been lovingly remastered with hardly any film artefacts evident, bar the odd speck here & there and a 7 minute sequence 53mins in where small translucent blotches can be seen on the print. Colours are crisp, brightness and contrast solid and black levels only falter for a few brief moments during the film, which is pretty good considering its age. Compression is also solid, although viewers with large screens may spot some minor artefacting resulting from what looks like Digital Noise Reduction. I have a sneaking suspicion that Celestial worked on this title much earlier than the sequels because detail levels aren’t quite as high as those for their more recent releases (Their earlier remastering process wasn’t as efficient as it is now). It would appear that to compensate they have applied some mild Edge Enhancement, which is never a good idea. Owners of progressive displays will also be disheartened to hear that the transfer is interlaced. Quibbles aside this is an impressive presentation from IVL/Celestial.
The audio will make the purists weep because only a Mandarin DD5.1 re-mix is present. Thankfully it’s a very subdued re-mix, with dialogue and action constrained to the center speaker and the surrounding channels being used for ambient sounds like wind and crickets during exterior sequences, it wouldn’t be a problem if these were the original sound elements but it’s obvious that they’ve been recorded for this DVD presentation. It is slightly intrusive but at least viewers with a Home Theatre set-up do have the option of turning the left, right and rear channels off. For the most part the audio is impressively clear with only the occasional break up during loud death cries and when the lively score kicks in. This is to be expected for a film of this age.
Traditional Chinese and English subtitles are present and as far as the English subtitles go, there were no spelling or grammatical errors that I could recall, so job well done.
ExtrasFirst up we have a promotional trailer for the main feature, along with other Shaw films: Golden Swallow, Five Shaolin Masters, The Magnificent Trio and Dragon Swamp, note that all of these have been newly created by Celestial, there are no original theatrical trailers on this disc. In the Movie Information section we have galleries for Behind the Scenes shots and Movie Stills, the Original Poster, Liner Notes and Cast & Crew Bio/Filmographies.
Ok we’ve got the boring stuff out of the way, now onto the real meat of the extras: The Master – Cheng Cheh: a 17min featurette on the late film legend. It’s an informative if brief look at the director’s career, with comments from some of the biggest stars that worked alongside and admired him. Best of all it has both Chinese and English subtitles, although none of the on-screen text is subbed into English, so newcomers to classic HK cinema may be left wondering who some of the interviewees are and what ties they had to Cheh. Last but not least are four (very) short animated films inspired by The One Armed Swordsman. Although they only add up to around 6mins or so in total, it’s nice to see an original extra once in a while. All extras are provided in widescreen and anamorphically enhanced.
OverallOne Armed Swordsman is a classic of HK cinema. While the action may have dated, the themes haven’t and this film remains the most involving character drama of the series. IVL/Celestial have done it justice by providing a good transfer and a couple of neat extras, it’s a fine start to the Trilogy Boxset.
7 out of 10
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Last updated: 19/04/2018 11:48:46