Return of the One-Armed Swordsman Review
|Return of the One-Armed Swordsman|
|New One-Armed Swordsman|
With the first film breaking Box Office records it was only a matter of time before a sequel would appear and within 2 years The Return of the One Armed Swordsman hit theatres. Rather than just taking the paycheck and churning out an idle 2nd rate rehash Chang Cheh managed to improve upon the weaknesses of the first film: the pacing and the action.
After the tumultuous events of the original, titular hero Fang Gang has managed to settle down with his sweetheart Xiao Man and live out a peaceful life as a farmer, but it’s obvious his deadly fighting skills are intact because he is sporting the kind of stubbly beard that would make Clint Eastwood envious. This peaceful idyll is placed in jeopardy when a gang of eight deadly weapon masters host a fake tournament in order to gather all the nation’s top sword chiefs together and hold their clans to ransom. The conditions are simple, the son of each chief must sever and deliver their right arm within fifteen days or the patriarch of their clan will be executed. Naturally the youngsters are torn between their filial duty and the fact that cutting off their arms will only leave them defenseless against any attacks on their clans. Their only option is to ask the infamous One Armed Swordsman to lead them in a raid on the 8 masters’ stronghold, but can they persuade him to break his promise and enter the Swordplay world one last time?
Free from the need for character development director Chang Cheh let his imagination run wild. While the first film broke new ground with its themes, this movie created waves with its inventive action. It’s apparent right from the start with a credits sequence, clearly inspired by the James Bond films, which has the main villains demonstrating their unique weapon skills, it would later be mimicked in countless subsequent Kung Fu films. Everything is ramped up to excessive levels, people don’t just bleed they spurt; there are no less than eight main villains each with their own troop of henchmen, every one of them lambs to the slaughter. In fact so unrelenting is the bloodshed that sometimes you feel like Chang made the first Kung Fu war film, it’s gleefully over the top! It’s not just quantity over quality though, choreographers Lau Kar-leung & Tong Kai improved leaps and bounds in just two years. They minimised the rapid-cut editing during fight sequences, giving the action room to breathe, although hardcore Kung Fu fans may still bemoan that Wang Yu’s fight technique hadn’t improved much, nor are there any really complex physical movements. The fight scenes never feel simplistic though, partially thanks to a more imaginative and varied use of wires and trampolines so Fang doesn’t just lunge at opponents he drifts, swings, and in one insane sequence, spins through the air decimating a bamboo forest in the process. It’s ridiculous but it lends the film a slightly camp charm.
There’s also a far bigger selection of weaponry on display, swords, knives, throwing stars, chained sickles, bladed frisbees that double as shields and even a sword that shoots poisonous gas! All crazy forms of attack, but each one is countered in a suitably imaginative way by Fang and his band of (not so) merry men. Such varied weaponry and extravagant use of wires was groundbreaking back in 1969, but even today the film is a source of inspiration for filmmakers. In one sequence Fang disables a group of villains with the branch off a nearby tree. Ang Lee and Yuen Woo-ping must’ve been paying attention because they copied this in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The Return of the One Armed swordsman is textbook proof that fight scenes do not need complex moves as long as they’re imaginative, and likewise a good Swordplay film doesn’t need a complex story as long as it has enough imaginative action sequences.
While this sequel completely eclipses the original in terms of action, it’s clear that the story is much slighter, but Chang Cheh still finds time to revisit and expand some of the themes that made the first film so worthwhile. He knew his target audience very well and continued to focus on the profitable youth market. It is the sons, not the more skillful fathers that find themselves threatened with complete alienation from the swordplay world by the severing of their right arms. The elders themselves are shown as being well past their sell-by date, easily thwarted and imprisoned by the youthful antagonists. In fact Chang has to go to great pains highlighting that the evil 8 masters are youthful because for some reason he decided to cast a mixture of young and middle-aged actors in the parts. Middle aged character actor Tien Feng plays the principal antagonist, The Furtive King, but eagle-eyed viewers will notice that Tien played a completely different role as an elderly swordsmaster in the first film! This is just one of the quirks of HK cinema. As far as the characterisation of Fang Gang goes, it is clear he has grown a lot since the proceedings in the original film and has made the transition into adulthood. Now fully disillusioned by the affairs of the martial world he spends most of the film in reflective mode, musing on the folly of all this bloodshed over something so trivial as the title of strongest sword clan. Wang Yu portrays all this perfectly with a coolly detached, authoritative performance. It would prove to be a fitting swansong to Wang Yu’s partnership with director Chang Cheh because he made just one more film for the Shaw Bros studio before leaving over creative differences and pay disputes. This wouldn’t be the last time Wang Yu played a one armed fighter though, he made a string of films with disabled heroes throughout the 70s starting with the Japanese classic Zatoichi Vs The One Armed Swordsman, the One Armed Boxer films and finally a few unofficial One Armed Swordsman spin-off films.
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 at about 2.33:1 there is a definite improvement in the transfer for the sequel. Colours, contrast and brightness levels are excellent. There are no noticeable film artefacts and digital noise is extremely minor. Detail levels are also much higher with hardly any Edge Enhancement at all (I only spotted some very faint enhancement in one or two scenes). It would definitely be a reference quality transfer if it weren’t for the fact that once again the transfer is interlaced, with horizontal camera pans in particular demonstrating some nasty ghosting on progressive displays.
As with the first film in the set the only audio track available is a Mandarin DD5.1 remix but this is how remixes should be done. It’s essentially a monaural track with the left, right and rear channels being used for environmental sounds only. Whether these sounds are from the original recording or added by Celestial I cannot say because I’ve never heard the original untouched monaural soundtrack for the film. Dialogue and music is very clear though, with minimal audio break up during harsh sounds.
For the subtitle tracks we have Chinese & English, the English translation this time feeling a little terse but no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall off-hand.
ExtrasUnfortunately there’s not much to write home about here. First up are 2.35:1 anamorphic trailers for the main feature and The One Armed Swordsman, Five Shaolin Masters, Golden Swallow and My Son. Again there are no original theatrical trailers on this disc, just the ones specially created by Celestial. Moving on we have: Cast & Crew Bio/Filmographies, Production Notes, the Original Theatrical Poster, a Movie Stills gallery and a Behind the Scenes gallery. It’s worth noting that the names given for the main 8 villains in the galleries are different to the ones in the feature’s English subtitles. Not knowing any Mandarin I can’t say which name translations are more accurate.
OverallPacier and crackling with the kind of creative energy that makes HK action cinema so exciting, Return of the One Armed Swordsman is a true genre classic in it’s own right and my personal favourite of the trilogy. With IVL/Celestial giving the film an excellent DVD presentation it’s the jewel in the crown of the Trilogy Boxset.
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