The One-Armed Swordsman Review
The problem with that liking for ninja films and for martial arts movies in general that one's sense of what is good and what is bad can become lost when faced with so many films that are, if one ignores the minutiae of the supporting cast, so very similar. The lead actors, particularly the villains, crop up in dozens of similar-sounding-and-looking films, sets are used and reused until, sometimes literally, they're falling down around the cast and with so very little information on the sheer number of films produced, it can be hard to sift the martial arts wheat from the vast amount of chaff. It's probably fair to say that for a very long time, I was not alone in tending towards watching any martial arts film that bookended the shelves in my local video store as (a) it was a rare treat that one appeared at all and (b) I genuinely didn't know any better.
Going through a very recent run of martial arts films, that sense of being very lost amongst a lot of kung fu and wuxia also-rans has returned. But then three films come along that stand so far above the rest that one is reminded to keep watching everything, or near enough, just for the joy of finding them. In amongst very many below-par Jackie Chan films came Last Hurrah For Chivalry, a marvellous film with a plot that twisted and surprised in the way that so few martial arts movies do. The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin was another superb film and though it was the second version of the film that has been reviewed for this site, the restoration of the picture by Dragon Dynasty was unexpected and most welcome. The third film that's worthy of mention is this one, The One-Armed Swordsman, which, though revealing some masterful sword fighting in its near-two-hour running time, does what very few martial arts films ever dare to - it allows its characters space to develop and to challenge what martial arts means to its protagonists. A blessing in its hero's ability to defend himself and the woman whose house he shares or, after the loss of his arm, a curse?
The One-Armed Swordsman is Fang Gang (Jimmy Wang Yu), whose father is murdered while protecting his master from bandits. Owing a debt to the man who saved his life, this master swordsman, Qi Rufeng (Feng Tian), invites Fang Gang to live with him in the manner of his own children, where he will be instructed in the ways of martial arts. However, no matter how kindly Fang Gang is treated by Qi Rufeng, he has never gotten over the manner in which he was first brought to the home of his teacher and is ruthlessly bullied to two fellow students and Qi Rufeng's daughter, Pei-Ri (Yin Tze Pan). One day, it gets to be too much even for the patient Fang and without a word to Qi Rufeng, he leaves the school but is followed into the woods by the three people who have tormented him who, away from Qi Rufeng, challenge Fang to a fight. The advantage that Fang has is his skill as a swordsman and defeats them easily but his arrogance is his undoing and, putting his sword away, he is attacked by a furious Pei, whose stray slash cuts off Fang's right arm. Picking up the sword that was once his father's, Fang runs off into the cold night never, Pei believes, to be heard from again.
Fang has not gone far. Still stumbling, he falls off a bridge and into a boat rowed by Hsiao Man, a young woman who has been tending her farm alone since the death of her father many years before. Tending to Fang and returning him to health, she finds that their love cannot cure the ills that dog him the most, the loss of his right arm and his being unable to practice his swordsmanship. Realising that Fang is not suited to a quiet life farming, Hsiao gives him a book that had belonged to her father and which he died protecting, a half-burnt martial arts manual that contains instructions for fighting with a sword using a warrior's left arm only. Rejuvenated, Fang takes to training once more but then word reaches him that an ancient enemy of Qi Rufeng, Long-armed Devil and Smiling Tiger, will take the opportunity presented by his birthday party to slay the master and his students. Will loyalty to Qi Rufeng win out over the life he's made for himself with Hsaio?
It's not very often that a martial arts film has written into it a character who expresses so thorough a dislike of violence as Hsiao Man does here. There are, of course, many films in which a hero is somewhat reluctant to take up arms who does eventually in a stunning display of bloodshed but fewer in which a character is so torn between a desire to continue with martial arts and his love for a woman who wants only a peaceful life. The One-Armed Swordsman is one such film, taking Fang Gang away from his life as a student of master swordsman Qi Rufeng and into the arms of Hsiao Man with whom he learns to tend the farm, to sail quietly in the waters around her home and to fall in love. Unusually, this creates a good deal of space in the film for the story to establish itself, with Fang Gang resting in the home of Hsiao Man while Long-armed Devil and Smiling Tiger prepare their own birthday celebrations for Qi Rufeng.
The one problem faced by The One-Armed Swordsman is that the actual fight scenes are, when compared to the many films that came after it, not awfully exciting. The plan hatched by Long-armed Devil and Smiling Tiger is to use a particular gadget, a sword with a clamping mechanism designed to disarm Qi Rufeng's students, to slaughter those loyal to their enemy and, on the night of his birthday celebrations, to kill the master swordsman. One by one, Qi Rufeng's students die at the hands of those of Long-armed Devil and Smiling Tiger in a series of grisly murders with Fang Gang largely unaware, other than the occasional skirmish, of what is happening. With each encounter proving fatal to the students of Qi Rufeng's school, word of this weapon is contained and so each one falls as did their brothers before them. Only Fang Gang, involved in skirmishes with the students of Long-armed Devil and Smiling Tiger, manages to draw the blood of the enemy but his discovery of their tactics comes almost too late. Even then, he bears the guilt of a man who has committed himself to a peaceful life with a woman he loves but who is unable to leave his past as a warrior behind him.
The One-Armed Swordsman is a stylish feature and one that takes place on beautifully-designed sound stages. The bright splashes of blood that arrive on the screen are a fitting final touch to a film that is sometimes fairy tale and sometimes visceral horror. It is not, however, a film that transcends the martial arts genre, rather it is an important and hugely enjoyable film that deserves a reputation as being one of high points of its kind.
Much like the release of The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin on the same day, this is further proof that Dragon Dynasty are doing an outstanding job on the release of martial arts films. After the low of Shanghai Express, one hopes that their choice of films is improving as steadily as their presentation as this and 36th Chamber are high points amongst their releases to date. Right from the very beginning with that iconic Shaw Brothers logo, it's absolutely clear that this is a wonderful transfer of the film onto DVD. The image is stable, bright and clean and offers the viewer a rich palette of colour, with the blood-red titles being an early high point. There are some marvellous-looking scenes that follow, though, including a swordfight in the snow, another in a tea house and, in one of the film's quieter moments, Hsiao Man finding a bloodied Fang Gang on her boat late one night. With almost the entire film shot on sound stages, it looks almost as good (and unreal) as the Technicolor films of the thirties and has been beautifully presented on this DVD.
As well as an English Mono dub, Dragon Dynasty has also included a Mandarin Mono track with both sounding excellent. The dialogue is clear, the sudden bursts of music pose few problems for the disc and unlike the harshness that sometimes comes with martial arts films, The One-Armed Swordsman sounds rich and warm. Finally, there are English and Spanish subtitles but only of the main film and not of the commentary or English-language bonus features.
Commentary: The back of the case lists this as featuring Quentin Tarantino and film writers David Chute and Andy Klein but in what will be a disappointment for fans of Tarantino, this only features Chute and Klein together. Personally, I can take or leave Tarantino and his films but he might have proved useful had he been present on this commentary, breaking up the rather dry analysis of the film in the same way as The RZA did with Andy Klein on The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. Granted, Klein and Chute are not short of knowledge as regards The One-Armed Swordsman and Shaw Brothers films in general but there's a lack of personal anecdotes and obvious enthusiasm, which would have brought flavour to the commentary. That said, Chute and Klein call up an impressive amount of information on the making of this film and its cast and crew (and what they did elsewhere) and occasionally come very much out of nowhere - they do late in the film when they bring up the homoeroticism in Chang Cheh's films - but fail to make this a thoroughly enjoyable listen.
Interviews: There are two short interviews included here, one with star of The One-Armed Swordsman, Jimmy Wang Yu and other with David Chute and Andy Klein. Beginning with his being hired by Shaw Brothers, Jimmy Wang Yu (10m56s) us through his early days in the film business, the making of The One-Armed Swordsman and, at its end, his life after the release of this film, which is best summed up by a photograph showing him on a horse beside his brand new Rolls-Royce. Taken over eight minutes, the interview with David Chute and Andy Klein (8m09s) is more entertaining than their commentary with Klein, in particular, pausing to reveal The One-Armed Swordsman place in a very small sub-genre of martial arts films, that of the handicapped warrior, which includes the wouldn't-get-away-with-it-now Crippled Avengers.
Chang Cheh: The Master (17m30s): Inviting a wide and varied number of interviewees to take part in this is not only testament to the reputation of Chang Cheh but gives the viewer an insight into the respect with which he is held amongst a crop of filmmakers who once worked alongside him. As well as Jimmy Wang Yu, this also features directors John Woo, Tsui Hark and actor David Chiang film with each one complementing Chang Cheh not only on his films but his method of working, with each one claiming to have learnt much from the experience of watching him direct and to have had much passed on to them from a man as generous with his time as he was his knowledge.
Trailer Gallery: There are three groupings here, the first being one for The One-Armed Swordsman featuring a Theatrical Trailer (4m02s) and a New Home Video Trailer (1m08s). The second group features other movies from the same filmmakers and includes ten trailers, The BoxerFrom Shantung, The Chinese Boxer, Crippled Avengers, The New One-Armed Swordsman and Return Of The One-Armed Swordsman amongst them. There are also trailers included for The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, King Boxer, My Young Auntie, Born To Fight, Infernal Affairs 3 and Seven Swords.
Finally, there is a Stills Gallery.