If you want to point to one of the most influential martial arts films ever made, The One-Armed Swordsman has to be near the top of the list. Released in 1967, it was the first film to crack the $1 million barrier at the Hong Kong box office, and helped to usher in a new era of martial arts films that would run through the 1970’s. The movie itself is fantastic, it features a strong, brooding, charismatic lead in Jimmy Wang Yu, some interesting swordplay, and the emergence of Chang Cheh as one of the leading directors of this new movement.
The story tells the story of a servant’s son who is taken in by a master swordsman after hs father is killed while defending the master’s home. In a debt of gratitude the swordsman, Master Qi, takes the boy as his own and promises to raise him. The film jumps ahead in time, the boy, Fang Gang (Jimmy Wang Yu is know grown, and feeling a bit rebellious due to his decidedly lower class origin in comparison to his fellow students, not to mention the master’s daughter.
The daughter, Qi Pei Er, conspires with a pair of fellow students to teach this upstart a lesson by luring him into the woods at night to beat him up. Before this can happen, Gang makes the decision to leave this life behind, never able to truly fit in. Even though he decides to leave, he still winds up confronting the trio. His arrogance, coupled with the disgust of Pei, leads her to react with a sword slash which severs Gangs right arm. And so the One Armed Swordsman is born.
Gang is able to stumble off following the attack, only to be rescued by a peasant woman named Xiaomann who nurses him back to health. Gang then goes about rebuilding his life, learning to fight left handed. This is not the only story, as there are evil things afoot surrounding Master Qi.
The film shifts gears and in addition to Gang’s attempt to reclaim his life, we learn that a rival of Master Qi has developed a new weapon that counteracts his sword style. Plans come to ahead as the villian, the evil Long Arm, sets his plan in motion to eliminate all of Qi’s students leaving a showdown between the two. As Long Arm’smen are murdering Qi’s students, Gang happens to be in town and witnesses what is going down.
Now, Gang may by attempting to leave this life behind and still holds great resentment for Qi Pei, he is still a man of honor. Being a man of honor, he feels he has a duty to Master Qi to warn him of the impending danger and to do what he can to stop it. This includes a dramatic rescue of said dismembering daughter from the clutches of Long Arm’s murderous cronies. Everything leads up to the inevitable showdown between our brooding hero and Long Arm.
The One-Armed Swordsman is a great film. Its story does not offer up any real surprises as it moves along its singular track. What it does do is bring a more realistic vision to martial arts films, delivers a brooding hero who displays great honor and embodies the conflict of class distinctions and the alienation of youth. Jimmy Wang Yu anchors the film carrying the emotional weight of the film as he struggles to find his place and reconcile his desire to honor his adoptive father with his desire to leave this world behind and forge forward with Xiaomann. It also brings us Chang Cheh’s desire for realistic martial arts films, and his penchant for spurting blood. It does not look terribly realistic, but it was something that was new to these films, and Cheh loved to poor it on. The fights are not nearly as complex as they would become, but they are never the less engaging and exciting.
Audio/Video. Both are superb. I cannot believe that this has looked this good since its theatrical release. For those who have fallen in love with the chopped, dubbed, faded, lousy videos and TV presentations, it is like seeing it for the first time. The colors are still a bit faded, but they are still vibrant and everything is crystal clear. The audio is also very nicely represented in both Mandarin and English dubbed form.
Extras. Dragon Dynasty is doing a great job of bringing these films to region 1 with some nice extras.
- Interviews. There are two interviews here. First up is a new interview with Jimmy Wang Yu who talks on how he got into movies and his experiences on the set. Secondly there is an interview with critics David Chute and Andy Klein who speak on the importance of this film in Hong Kong.
- Featurette: “The Master Chang Cheh.” A twenty minute featurette on Chang Cheh and his vision. It includes interviews with Tsui Hark, John Woo, and others.
- Commentary. The track is quite informative and interesting. It features David Chute and Andy Klein. The case claims that Quentin Tarantino is on the track, but he is not.
- Stills Gallery.
- Trailer Gallery.
Bottomline. This movie is a blast, great acting, exciting action. It features some nice cinematography, and camera work. If you have any interest in martial arts cinema, or just good movies, make a point to see this one. Dragon Dynasty has delivered a fine disk.