One-Armed Swordsman (1967)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-06-28
“One Armed Swordsman” is the story of Fang Kang who is able to escape his karmic destiny of murder, revenge and retribution in the closed world of martial arts. Even though he has lost a limb by the end of the movie he has become a whole person, integrated into the society around him, redeemed by the love and unswerving devotion of Xiao Man and able to turn his back on his former life.

Kang was fated to enter martial arts. His father, a servant in the house of Master Qi Ru Feng, died defending the family from attack by armed bandits. Master Qi tells the dying man that he will take his son as a pupil and raise him like a member of the family. Kang’s father dies happy—and very flamboyantly, standing and pulling two swords from his torso before collapsing dead. The next link in the endless chain of death and retaliation has been forged.

Fang Kang is a dutiful pupil and a model disciple while never forgetting his humble beginnings, and never being allowed to forget them by Qi Pei Er, the ravishingly beautiful daughter and only child of Master Qi and his wife. Two other students, sons of a friend and comrade in arms of the master, taunt and belittle him, outraged that someone of his social standing has been made their equal. In their eyes, of course, he will always be an underling and they always the overlords. A confrontation witnessed by Qi leads to a very clear, concise and direct definition of the master/disciple relationship. He berates the two tormentors, saying that he will teach them martial arts and also to be good men. Their father is a great martial artist himself but sent them here because he knew that that Qi wouldn't favor them in any way. His attitude is the opposite of theirs—he is sublimely confident in his abilities and therefore unthreatened by Kang’s presence and also aware of his responsibilities to the young men in his care, including those who act like jerks. From the student’s point of view when your master tells you something you do it RIGHT NOW. Qi told Fang Gang to stop doing chores put on his new clothes and work out. Fang Gang didn't even finish carrying wood he had just chopped.--just put it down right there and went to change. His instant, unquestioned obedience is the standard that the audience knows students should strive for.

We know from the title that Fang Kang will soon have a significant problem. He becomes one armed but not yet a swordsman after deciding to leave the school due to the friction his presence causes. The two louts and Qi Pei Er meet him in the woods, one thing leads to another and he winds up staggering away from them leaving his right arm on the ground. The disabling blow was struck by Qi Pei Er, as spoiled and cosseted princess as one could find.

Having stumbled through the snow and dragged himself to the middle of a bridge over a very narrow canal, Fang passes out and falls into Xiao Man’s even more narrow boat which is passing below. She doesn’t hesitate for a moment. Waking her grandfather to help, she hauls the unconscious man into her home for emergency first aid which saves his life. Xiao Man’s life, while seeming very different from her patient, resonates in the same way. Her father was a martial artist who was killed while keeping a secret book from falling into the hands of his master’s enemies. Horrified and fearful, she and her mother fled, putting distance between themselves and her father’s killers while also getting as far from the warlike world of martial arts as they could. Xiao Man has a small house on a small plot of land which she farms next to a small stream in which she fishes. Her life was complete if uneventful until Fang literally dropped into it. Things are now complicated since she has fallen in love with him. While she hates the idea of him even practicing martial arts she gives him the book that her father died to protect. His unhappiness and frustration is too much for her to bear.

All the action and conflict has led to this point. Fang’s status as an outsider in the upper class world of martial arts training connects with Xiao Man’s revulsion against the entire system of living one’s life completely in the thrall of one’s Sifu. It is a powerful combination—Fang is, for the first time, loved for himself not for what he can do. One illustration of this is when he catches a fish for the first time using only his left hand on the fishing rod. He is thrilled and Xiao Man is thrilled for him. He even picks up enough one-handed palm and sword techniques so that they won’t have to worry about wandering tough guys who want to do them harm. Fang still feels a debt to his former master but can now think of him in the past tense. He is comfortable as a farmer, loves and is loved by a wonderful woman and is willing to settle into the rest of his life.

The couple decides go into the nearby town where there is a temple festival—a sideshow, games of chance, fun for the kids—a relaxing day away from chores. Tellingly, both of them remark on how lovely some of the children look and how much they seem to be enjoying themselves, the type of thing a young couple who could be thinking of starting a family in the near future might talk about. Until, of course, everything changes. Qi’s daughter and two of his students are at the fair, as are two ruffians who threatened Fang and Xiao earlier. The two loutishly confront a woman then beat up a man who comes to her aid—a man who helped when Fang was rescued. He is outraged and is in the process of beating them to a pulp when their master intervenes, makes them apologize and hauls them away.

He is the Smiling Tiger, a feared martial artist. His brother is the Long Armed Devil, an extraordinarily gifted and completely vicious combat master. Master Qi had beaten both of them and they have traveled to the area to seek revenge—not to simply defeat Qi but to kill him, his entire family and all of his students. The wheel of destruction, death and devastation continues to turn—they know if any of Qi’s students escapes the survivor will at some point return to avenge him and will be as ruthless as they were. Long Armed Devil has devised a new technology that is superior to Qi’s golden sword which has been the weapon that has ruled the martial arts battlefield. This invention, a sword lock, is such a breakthrough that it must be kept completely secret since it allows a fighter to defeat someone who has greater skill.

No one involved thinks that any of this is remarkable or even particularly interesting—it is simply business as usual in the eternally destructive world that they inhabit. While the tactics may change, revolutionary weapons created and alliances made or broken the end result is the complete extinction of one’s enemy, even while knowing that the foes will never be totally destroyed and that retribution will be demanded at some point—if not now then in future generations. Slaughter is on the agenda and no one is immune. Qi’s school which had been a sanctuary for his family and a beacon for his former students becomes a killing field with bodies literally piling up. Fang arrives before the Qi, his wife and daughter are put to the sword, his own blade stained with the fresh blood of Smiling Tiger. He is successful in defending his former master, willing to die for him if necessary, but not willing to live for him. Once the evildoers have been dispatched Fang tells the remaining fighters that he is finished with the martial arts world and walks away joined by Xiao, deciding that the cycle of the seasons, of planting and harvesting, is what he wants.

“One Armed Swordsman” is a beautiful looking movie. The costumes are a riot of color with lilac, lavender, dusty pink and mint green as well as the more traditional red, deep blue and black. Master Qi is outfitted in a robe that looks like sable trimmed with ermine; the type of garment a Renaissance archduke would be comfortable wearing. Lisa Chiao Chiao carries the acting honors. She looks heartbreakingly vulnerable in some of her close-ups, fiercely determined and resolute in others. Fan Mei-Sheng and Wong Sai-Git (2) as Smiling Tiger’s students are repulsively coarse, the very picture of uncultured boobs who can’t be ignored because they are armed. A sense of crude menace accompanies them. The sets are as opulent as one would expect on a movie shot on the Shaw Brothers lot. The action ranged from exciting to dull. Some of the weapons looked to be too long and heavy for some of the actors to credibly impersonate swordsmen and the hand to hand combat was unexceptional.

It was very well written, making its thematic points but never didactic. It was very easy to have a rooting interest in Fang and Xiao both as individuals and as a couple. While some of the villains were drawn with very broad strokes they were still convincing as types. Chang Cheh’s direction was exemplary with a light but steady hand on each story line, keeping things moving but also allowing the story to develop almost organically.

During the last fight, the ultimate battle between good (Fang Kang) and evil (Long Armed Devil), Chang switched to a hand held camera. It wasn’t really intrusive—he didn’t suddenly morph into John Cassavetes—but was noticeable and didn’t seem to add much.

The quality of the DVD itself—sharpness, depth of color, film grain, that kind of thing—isn’t part of reviews on this venue but I think it is worth mentioning that the current Dragon Dynasty release is just about everything a film to digital transfer should be. Whoever worked on it did a wonderful job.

Highly recommended
Reviewer Score: 8