The New One-Armed Swordsman [新獨臂刀] (1971)
AKA Triple Irons
Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Li Ching, Ku Feng, Chan Sing, Wong Chung, Lau Gong, Wong Pau-Gei, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wong Ching Ho, Shum Lo, Cheng Lui
Directed by Chang Cheh
Expectations: Super high. I imagine David Chiang can pull off a rather awesome One-Armed Swordsman movie, but we’ll see!
Going into The New One-Armed Swordsman, I was excited. I’m a big fan of the previous One-Armed Swordsman movies, so I expected this is be a retelling of the original with David Chiang in the lead instead of Wang Yu. But this thread of logic forgets one key bit about Chang Cheh: his desire to continue moving forward, specifically not redoing his old pictures time and time again. And The New One-Armed Swordsman is true to its name; it is a completely new character and origin story. While The One-Armed Swordsman is one of the most influential and iconic Hong Kong films of all time, and its sequel Return of the the One-Armed Swordsman is one of the funnest Shaw Brothers films of the 1960s, The New One-Armed Swordsman is easily my favorite of the three. It combines the serious tone of the original and the focus on exciting action that typified the sequel, making The New One-Armed Swordsman nothing but awesome.
The film opens with a rousing bit of music and Lei Li (David Chiang) riding through the hills slaughtering any who comes across his path. He is a young, cocky martial artist, famous for his use of the twin swords. Some devious men frame him for a robbery and this leads him into a fight with Lung Er Zi (Ku Feng). Lung is the man responsible for framing Lei, but he’s running a good front so everyone thinks he’s a paragon of virtue. Anyway, Lung challenges Lei to a duel and whoever loses must cut off their right arm and retire from the martial world. One guess who loses.
But boy does Chiang lose spectacularly! Ku Feng wields a three-section staff, one of my favorite kung fu weapons, and the choreography between the two combatants is just superb. This encounter is one of the best one-on-one fights yet in the Shaw catalog, sold through perfect editing and expert movement on the part of the actors. The fight ends when Ku Feng unleashes his secret technique designed specifically to take out enemies using twin swords, slamming both ends of his staff into the chest of Chiang. He stumbles back, dazed, and spits a mouthful of blood onto the nearby wheat stalks. Seems like only recently that I saw a very similar shot in a film by a director obsessed with the Shaw Brothers! He must also be a fan of The New One-Armed Swordsman.
Your mileage may vary, but for me this was one of the most consistently entertaining Shaw Brothers films I’ve seen since starting my review series. Chang Cheh can sometimes lean towards a forced romantic sub-plot that takes up way too much time, but here the romantic angle between Chiang and Li Ching is excellent. Chiang’s still a brooder, and Li Ching is little more than a young damsel, but their relationship feels like it has legs (but only three arms…). So even though the middle section is a little light on action, I was never bored or restless, as their interplay was charming and teeming with lots of deep-seated emotions. And while this does slow down the film just a hint, this section also introduces Ti Lung’s character who is about as charming and chivalrous as heroes come. It’s an expertly paced film that just builds and builds until it unleashes a ton of stellar fights back-to-back. The last 25 minutes is nearly all action.
And as I mentioned, that action is great! Like leagues better than most Shaw Brothers films up to this point, and way, way better than the choreography seen in the first Golden Harvest film, The Invincible Eight, released just a couple of weeks prior to this film. Choreographers Tang Chia and Lau Kar-Leung were clearly hitting their stride around this time and this makes me grin from ear to ear. The editing within these fights is also absolutely phenomenal, with equally impressive camera moves all coming together to form a cohesive symbiotic relationship. This is the stuff that later genre films would continue to perfect and improve upon, but that doesn’t mean it’s not absolutely stunning here.
The New One-Armed Swordsman also features one of my favorite Shaw Brothers soundtracks yet. Their usual films feature a fairly static set of musical cues (with many stolen from James Bond and various other films), many of which I’ve come to expect and know very well. I often find myself humming some of these themes while I go about my day-to-day business in order to spice up going to the grocery store or other mundane transactions. But in this film, nearly all of those are thrown out and replaced with a highly modern (to 1971) set of upbeat, horn-based themes that completely go against the period setting. For some this anachronistic music might not work, but I flat-out loved it. Just when the film would hit a serious dramatic beat, and I’d get wrapped up in the emotions that go along with it, Chang Cheh would cut to Ti Lung on a horse riding heroically into town with triumphant ’70s music scoring every frame. It quickly reminds you that while the film does trade in serious drama, it’s also a load of fun, and for me it walked this line perfectly.
For my money, this is the one-armed movie I’m most excited about re-watching, and it’s also one of Chang Cheh’s best-made films up to this point. I literally loved every second of The New One-Armed Swordsman. I also loved that instead of simply remaking or trying to reboot Jimmy Wang Yu’s Fang Gang character, they created a whole new one-armed swordsman. This would later, during their “post-Shaw, fading careers” period, allow the two stars to come together to co-direct and co-star in a team-up film, One-Armed Swordsmen! On title alone, you just gotta love it! I’ll have to get around to that (and the other one-armed Jimmy Wang-Yu movies) one of these days.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Cheng Chang Ho’s Six Assassins! I know nothing at all about that movie, so hopefully it’s a good one! Cheng’s previous film, Valley of the Fangs, was pretty fun.