Hong Kong cinema is replete with iconic figures. Whether it’s the high-flying swordsmen in numerous wuxia films, the stylish urban killers that populate the bullet-riddled filmographies of John Woo and his heirs, or the various cinematic incarnations of Chinese folk heroes like Wong Fei-Hung and Fong Sai-Yuk, it’s become abundantly clear that Hong Kong filmmakers know a thing or two about creating unforgettable on-screen heroes.
One such hero - perhaps the most iconic - was introduced in the now-classic Shaw Brothers film, One-Armed Swordsman. Spawning two official sequels, a remake by Tsui Hark, a crossover movie with Japan’s blind swordsman Zatoichi, and innumerable imitations and homages, the film has gone on to capture the imagination of fans and filmmakers worldwide. Looking back some thirty-one years later, it’s easy for me to see why. As far removed as One-Armed Swordsman is from our contemporary sensibilities about what film heroes, anti-heroes, and filmmaking in general should be, there remains something undeniably appealing about Jimmy Wang Yu’s single-armed hero, something almost archetypal.
The story arc of One-Armed Swordsman is doubly tragic. In addition to the physical trauma implied in the title, there is also an initial tragedy that has origins in the protagonist’s childhood years. In the prologue, we are thrust into the middle of what would probably be termed a home invasion in modern terms, as the Golden Sword School finds itself under attack by intruders from a rival clan. Luckily for the folks at Golden Sword, there’s a lowly, but heroically faithful servant named Fang Cheng (Guk Fung) who is successfully able to fend off the attackers. Unfortunately for him, he is mortally wounded while trying to protect his master, Qi Ru-Feng (Tin Fung). In gratitude for the man’s ultimate sacrifice, Master Qi agrees to take Fang Cheng’s young son on as a pupil, a rare honor for most, but probably the very least Qi could in return for saving his life.
Years pass, and we find that the young boy – named Fang Gang (Jimmy Wang Yu) – has grown up to become an excellent martial artist. Unfortunately, Fang’s earnestness and “aw shucks” demeanor is grossly misinterpreted by his jealous classmates who view him as a disingenuous teacher’s pet. They also resent the fact that he has gained a favored position with the master despite his so-called lowly origins. That isn’t a surprise since the other students are brats who come from well-known, prosperous families.
One fateful day, Fang Gang learns the full extent of their not-so-secret hatred for him and decides own that it would be best for everyone if he left the school for good. After leaving a letter for his master and taking his precious broken sword (the only keepsake he has of his father), Fang Gang leaves the Golden Sword School for parts unknown. In the snowy woods on the outskirts of the school, he finds himself surrounded by his three disgruntled classmates. The leader of the pack is Master Qi’s cute, spoiled rotten young daughter, Pei-Er (Pan Yin-Tze), whose feelings for Fang Gang run hot and cold throughout the picture.
A reluctant Fang Gang easily beats his two male challengers in an impromptu duel, but things get ugly when an infuriated Pei-Er insists to be treated the same as any man. Fang Gang halfheartedly complies on the condition that they do not use weapons. Pei-Er agrees, finding herself in the ensuing melee to be no match for Fang Gang. This simple fact should have resolved matters, but unfortunately, Pei-Er is awfully bad sore loser. How sore? When Fang Gang drops his guard, a mortified Pei-Er grabs her blade and chops off Fang’s arm in a sequence that is gloriously bloody and over-the-top. Clearly, things have taken a wrong turn for our hero.
Bleeding profusely, Fang Gang stumbles off into the snow and eventually makes his way to a hilariously fake-looking bridge that spans over a tiny, equally fake-looking “river.” Gravity takes hold, and Fang Gang falls into the void. Or does he? Lucky for him there’s a boat passing by. Even luckier, there’s a nice girl steering the boat. Fang’s savior is named Hsiao Man (Chiao Chiao), an orphaned farm girl, who nurses him back to health. The two predictably fall for one another, but everything isn’t exactly coming up roses for Fang Gang. Although healed from his wounds, Fang becomes embittered at the idea of living out the rest of his life as a “useless cripple.”
But for a one-armed man, Fang Gang sure has a lot of luck. It’s rather fortunate for him that Hsiao Man is in possession of a super-secret kung fu manual that her father died protecting. Said manual just so happens to have instructions on how to become a deadly sword-fighter with only one arm. And even better, the broken blade Fang Gang has kept all these years merely as an ornamental memento of his father is actually the perfect weapon for a one-armed swordsman. Forget luck; this is fate.
Meanwhile, the nefarious marital arts school responsible for the death of Fang’s father has spent the intervening years preparing for a second chance at toppling the Golden Sword School for unchallenged supremacy in the world of Jiang Hu. Their leader, the dastardly Long-Armed Devil (Yang Chi-Ching) has created a specially-designed “sword lock,” a gadget-enhanced sword that can easily defeat the right-handed long blade style practiced by every single member of the Golden Sword School. In the final act, the baddies invade the Golden Sword School, and with the heroes lacking any counterattack in their repertoire, a bloody massacre seems all-too inevitable. Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there was a left-handed master of the broken blade who’s still loyal to Master Qi Ru-Feng? Oh, wait - that’d be our hero. Again, that’s Chinese fate for ya.
One-Armed Swordsman is reportedly the first Hong Kong film to break the HK $1 million barrier at the local box office, and while those numbers may seem like small potatoes in the wake of The Dark Knight’s recent multi-kajillion dollar box office take, it was no small feat back in the 1960s. And even with just one viewing on DVD, it’s not hard to see why audiences flocked to the theater back in 1967. This film is a rousing crowdpleaser, introducing perhaps the first handi-capable hero in movie history.
While Jimmy Wang Yu was by no means a martial artist at the caliber of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, director Chang Cheh was a genius at making him look intimidating and skillful with the sword. Dressed in black garb, complete with tough guy stubble, Wang Yu looks as if he were meant to be the Chinese answer to Clint Eastwood or Toshiro Mifune. Although the actor’s face is a tad on the boyish side, Wang Yu sells the grizzled badass look completely, creating a thoroughly mesmerizing and surprisingly complex character in what probably could’ve been a one-note revenge film. This is a film about forgiveness, loyalty, and maturity - albeit with a lot of hacking and slashing.
Among the supporting cast, Chiao Chiao perhaps shares the most screen time with Wang Yu. She’s fine in the role of the orphan Hsiao Man, but as far as the romance department is concerned, she makes for a surprisingly dowdy and matronly love interest both in terms of her physical appearance and attitude. It seems to be an intentional contrast with the haughty beauty of Pei-Er. Whatever the case, it’s an interesting filmmaking decision, considering that most films would cast the “real beauty” as the innocent farm girl.
Despite a sometimes saggy middle act, One-Armed Swordsman moves along at a rather brisk pace. The storyline is simple and easy to follow: boy loses arm, boy meets girl, boy fights to get back what he has lost. Even so, while this is indeed a film about heroism, it also contains inklings of a counter-narrative on the futility of the Jiang Hu lifestyle, a thread that is picked up on and woven more intricately into the storyline of the sequel, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman.
Some modern viewers may find the film to be too dated to be taken seriously for any number of reasons. As covered in my comments about the river bridge in the first act, the sets here retain the typical Shaw Brothers in-studio aesthetic, in which numerous outdoor environments look like obvious sets. However, I think that that uniquely Shaw Brothers artificiality creates a certain kind of on-screen world that exists outside time - one of fairy tales and myth. And One-Armed Swordsman is indeed the stuff of myth. It’s also a heckuva lot of fun to watch. (Calvin McMillin 2008)