Judge Roy Hrab turned on the English subtitles. Then he turned on the English dubbing. Then he turned on both the subtitles and the dubbing at the same time. Now he is one happy camper.
"You bully me because I'm maimed. Now know you what it feels like!"
When the Shaw Brothers released The One-Armed Swordsman in 1967 it was a runaway hit, becoming the first movie to gross $1 million at the Hong Kong box office. It spawned a number of sequels and other one-armed fighter movies such as One-Armed Boxer. Further, the film is credited with ushering in a new era of martial films that focused on more realistic fight sequences based on Japanese samurai films. Is this enough to make it a classic martial arts film?
On a whole, I was not overly impressed with The One-Armed Swordsman and do not consider it a "classic," despite the influence it may have had on the genre, nor would I list it among my favourite martial arts films. This is not to say that The One-Armed Swordsman is bad movie. On the contrary, it is a clever and thoughtful film in some ways and, of course, there is camp appeal.
Facts of the Case
Fang Gang's (Jimmy Wang Yu, Master of the Flying Guillotine) father dies while protecting master swordsman Qi Rufeng (Feng Tian, King Boxer) from bandits. Before Fang's father expires, Rufeng agrees to take the soon to be orphaned boy under his wing. However, as a student at Master Qi's school, Fang is mocked and bullied by two students and Rufeng's daughter Pei-Ri (Yin Tze Pan, Around The World In 80 Days), partially because of his servant roots. Not wishing to be the cause of discord, Fang leaves the school. However, not far from the grounds, he is stopped and challenged by the two disciples and Pei. The ensuing skirmish concludes with Pei chopping off Fang's right arm (his sword arm), sending him staggering and bleeding into the night.
Fang collapses fortuitously onto the boat of a simple country girl, Xiaoman (Chiao Chiao, Return Of The One-Armed Swordsman), who nurses him back to health. As Fang comes to terms with the loss of his arm, he vows to leave behind his violent past and become a farmer. However, there is evil afoot. A man known as Long-Armed Devil (Chih-Ching Yang, Come Drink With Me), who was defeated by Rufeng in a duel many years ago, is seeking revenge with the help of a secret weapon and the assistance of his younger brother, Smiling Tiger (Di Tang, Killers Five). And so, loyalty to Rufeng compels Fang to return to the way of the sword.
This is not a simpleminded martial arts picture. There is a surprising amount of discussion and exploration of the nature and implications of violence. These exchanges take place mostly between Fang and Xiaoman. While trying to convince Fang to live the simple life of a farmer, Xiaoman reveals that her father, like Fang's, died in the service of a sword master. She also explains how her mother implored her to avoid such men because of the violent end they will almost surely meet. Fang's promises to be peaceful, but struggles to shed his violent past as he rationalizes ways (i.e., defending Xiaoman's honour, repaying a past debt, loyalty to Rufeng) to engage in increasingly violent confrontations. Long-Armed Devil's revenge plot serves to illustrate further the cyclical nature of violence.
The other notable plot mechanism is Devil's secret weapon. I won't reveal what it is because the device is quite novel and, for the most part, plausible. At the same time, the weapon is used as an instrument to explore the differences between master and pupil. The difference is that the pupils are not able to develop a strategy to counter the secret weapon despite seeing it in use nor are they capable of realizing that they are overmatched. On the other hand, the masters (both Rufeng and Long-Armed Devil) recognize when circumstances change and make adjustments. The secret weapon also serves the more important purpose of allowing Fang to use his disability to his advantage. The loss of his right arm leads Fang to teach himself a left-handed sword fighting technique that favours the use of a broken sword (no heavy use of symbolism here!). Consequently, Fang's disability turns out to be the key element to overcoming Devil's device, carrying with it the implication that Fang has become a master swordsman himself.
At this point, I'm sure some of you are thinking "Enough with the scholarly mumbo jumbo. What about the fight scenes? What about the camp factor?" Fair point, so let's get to it.
Overall, the fights scenes are unimpressive, lacking in excitement and choreography. Swords clang and many a man is slain, usually clutching his stomach. However, the initial sequence of Long-Armed Devil's henchmen picking-off Rufeng's disciples one-by-one is interesting because of the use of Devil's secret weapon. Also, there is a fight scene at a roadside restaurant that is Zatoichi-esque in its choreography and contains a notably lethal use of chopsticks.
As for the camp factor, it is on full display in the forms of melodramatic death scenes; evil-bearded men throwing back their heads and cackling in a manner most malevolent, some outlandishly colourful costumes, over-the-top music, and rather inexpensive looking studio sets. Of course, turning on the English dubbing is the key to fully harnessing the camp potential. For even more fun, be sure to have the English dubbing and subtitles going at the same time to see the sometimes inexplicable differences between the two. For example, the subtitle "Long-Armed Devil" is dubbed to "Old Long-Arm" while "Smiling Tiger" becomes "Smiling Face." What's that about?
The acting is a mixed bag to say the least. On the weak side of the ledger is Jimmy Wang Yu. That he is an actor of limited range cannot be ignored. Looking stern and stone-faced is fine for fight scenes, but such a lack of expression does not serve him, or the movie, well in the softer exchanges involving Xiaoman and Pei-Er. On the other hand, Chiao Chiao gives an excellent performance as a woman torn between the man she loves and her abhorrence of the cycle of violence that he cannot seem to escape. The rest of the ensemble, such as Feng Tian, Chih-Ching Yang, and Di-Tang, provide adequate support in their roles as stock characters.
The video transfer is top-notch. The colours are clear, crisp and bright. The movie looks great, although there are some small smudge spots visible during parts of the Temple fair scene, but this is a minor quibble. The English and Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks are similarly excellent. The dialogue, sound effects and music all come through clear.
There are a barrelful of extras: audio commentary with David Chute and Andy Klein (the cover jacket on the DVD case incorrectly states that Quentin Tarantino participates in the commentary); a featurette on the director, Chang Cheh (Golden Swallow); an interview with Klein and Chute; an interview with Jimmy Wang Yu; biographies of Chute and Klein; a gallery of stills; and, trailers galore. Chute and Klein give a thorough commentary that covers a lot of ground, including other work by the actors in the film, Chang Cheh's penchant for stomach wounds, the leading themes of the film and the significance of the film in the evolution of the genre. The interview with Klein and Chute elaborates briefly on some of the points made in their commentary. The interview with Wang Yu yields an interesting bit of information: the voice of Fang Gang is not Wang Yu's because his Mandarin was so poor that they had his dialogue dubbed-over by a more fluent speaker. The featurette on director Cheh reviews his career, influence and style. The featurette is built around interviews, including comments from John Woo (Windtalkers) and Andy Lau (House Of Flying Daggers). Much is made of Cheh's fondness for slow motion shots and blood pouches, making him sound like the Sam Peckinpah of Hong Kong. Interestingly, slow motion shots and excessive blood letting are not on display at all in The One-Armed Swordsman.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I have downplayed the "classic" status that some have bestowed upon this film, I would be remiss if I did not note that Jimmy Wang Yu appeared alongside Shintaro Katsu in 1971's Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, also known as Zatoichi Meets His Equal. If being considered the equal of Zatoichi is not evidence of the significance and popularity of The One-Armed Swordsman then I don't know what is.
The One-Armed Swordsman is a workmanlike martial arts film that has been given a truly first class treatment on DVD and is worth viewing by fans of the genre as well as those who enjoy camp.
Not guilty of anything more than being a guilty pleasure for some.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Audio commentary with David Chute and Andy Klein
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