Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Tien Feng, Violet Pan Ying-Zi, Yeung Chi Hing, Tang Ti, Fan Mei-Sheng, Wong Sai-Git, Cheung Pooi-Saan, Ku Feng, Tang Chia, Lau Kar-Leung
Directed by Chang Cheh
OK, Chang Cheh just threw down the motherfuckin’ gauntlet! Every Shaw Brothers release up to this point is null and void, this is where the shit gets real. Taking a massive leap forward from his previous film, Trail of the Broken Blade, The One-Armed Swordsman comes off as not only a genre-defining masterpiece, but a career defining move by Chang Cheh. The loose threads of his later style glimpsed briefly in Trail of the Broken Blade are brought out here in their full glory, removing every last element of Chinese opera and replacing it with straight up badass iconic imagery and scenes.
Jimmy Wang Yu plays Fang Kang, the son of a servant who died defending his master Qi Ru Feng. Qi takes the boy in and raises him as a student of the sword, but he is looked down upon by his fellow students and Qi’s daughter. They confront him in the snowy field outside the school, one thing leads to another, and Fang’s arm is quickly reddening the snow. Distraught, he runs into the night, only to collapse into the boat of a country maiden who nurses him back to health.
Jimmy Wang Yu starred in a number of Shaw Brothers pictures around this time, but none of them would have the impact on his career like The One-Armed Swordsman. Just as this was career-defining for Chang Cheh, it made Wang Yu a massive star and gave him a fruitful multi-decade career playing, in addition to other roles, the one-armed swordsman many times. His acting is over-the-top at times, which is usual for him, but for the most part he plays Fang with a restrained angst at the surrounding world that makes the character likeable and relatable. He’s not a well-trained kung fu master, nor is he a bungling idiot, Fang is a working class dude that got a shit deal and is working on bettering it. Who can’t find something to relate to there?
In addition to Jimmy Wang Yu, the rest of the cast does an admirable job. One of my favorite Shaw Brothers stock actors, Tien Feng, is perfectly cast as the aging teacher Qi and he’s given much more to work with dramatically than is typical for the time period. Veteran Shaw Brothers players Tang Ti and Yeung Chi Hing are fantastically devilish as the two main villains, with kung fu to rival the best that Jimmy Wang Yu and all other comers can throw at them.
The fights themselves are easily the most technically impressive and exciting action sequences from the studio at the time. They far outshadow every previous film and it’s no secret why this was a massive success, becoming the first film in Hong Kong to rake in over $1 million at the box office. It’s one thing to be impressive at the time, but another entirely to remain as exciting to a jaded viewer over forty years later. The One-Armed Swordsman does just that, and I could do nothing but sit in awed wonder at just how fucking awesome the final thirty minutes of the film are.
A true masterpiece of the kung fu genre, The One-Armed Swordsman is the first great Chang Cheh picture. Even beyond the genre, this is just a great, well-made movie. While some snobbish critics might disagree with this assessment, you can’t argue with the effects this film had on the industry at large. Chang Cheh and The One-Armed Swordsman single-handedly ripped martial arts filmmaking out of the Chinese opera and gave it a new life, filled with revenge, intrigue and a shitload of blood and dismemberment. While it definitely lacks when directly compared to later highlights of the genre, The One-Armed Swordsman is an absolute must for any self-respecting martial arts film fan and is easily as important a film to martial arts cinema history as Psycho is to the horror genre. Highly recommended.