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WuM (1967)
One-Armed Swordsman

Reviewed by: Masterofoneinchpunch
Date: 05/28/2010
Summary: Chang Cheh's Early Masterpiece

Though the chambara (Japanese swordplay film) influence on Chang Cheh was already seen in his previous film The Magnificent Trio (1966), a remake of Hideo Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) (and quite possibly the earlier Tiger Boy (1966): however this film is not available anywhere on DVD so it is hard to comment on it), it would be The One-Armed Swordsman that would help define Cheh as an auteur with his own blend of Japanese action aesthetics, American rebellious characters and Chinese wuxia heroes. This film would not only be the first film to break the 1 million HK dollars barrier it would also be a watershed moment for the area's cinema. The popularity of this film as well as King Hu's hit the year before Come Drink With Me helped push in a new era of Mandarin language movies as well as push out the indigenous language Cantonese cinema for several years. But it would be the brutal style of Chang that would dominate the regional efforts and not the Peking Opera influenced King Hu (it also did not help Hu that he was a much slower at making films than Chang). This movie would also be the first in the subgenre of "one-armed" films that stereotyped the career of the star of this movie Jimmy Wang Yu.

Wang Yu had already acted in a couple of Chang Cheh films, but it is his performance here as Fang Gang that would make him a star in Hong Kong. Fang is an orphan whose father had perished saving the life of Qi Ru-feng (Tien Feng: King Boxer (1972)). Qi shows his gratefulness by taking on Fang as a student. Fang also obtains the broken sword that was used by his father, but it could not possibly be of any use. He quickly becomes an adept student that because of his success and austereness has earned the ire of not only a couple of rich students, but also with Qi Pei-er (Pan Ying-zi: The Magnificent Trio), the daughter of the sifu, when he rebukes her advances. It is usually a bad idea to turn down your teacher's daughter and in this film it is no exception.

Fang's skill level is so advanced that he toys with the other students and Pei-er when they intend on teaching him a lesson. He completely outclasses them with his masculine masterful display of martial arts. However, since he is only toying with them he lets his guard down not expecting that the petulant daughter will exact her revenge by cutting off his right arm. It is not difficult to see this as a castration allegory for not only embarrassing her in the fight, but also not returning her affections.

Blooded and broken, Fang stumbles off leaving a crimson trail (while not bloody by later Shaw Brothers standards, this was quite gory for its time) until he gets found and saved by orphan Xiao Man (Lisa Chiao Chiao: The Assassin (1967)) who hates the world of martial arts because it lead to the death of her father. Yet when Fang wakes from his shock induced slumber, later gets beat up by a couple of ruffians, falls into a deep doleful state she takes pity on him and gives him her father's manual of martial arts. While part of the manual is missing it luckily has the "left-arm" portions. A few days later he is an accomplished one-armed fighter. Obviously it is unrealistic that in a short time he could lose an arm and then become an accomplished fighter (and one scene of him displaying his power of chi should probably have been trimmed as it really does not seem to fit in with the rest of the film) this treatment is probably copasetic with the Jin Yong novel The Return of the Condor Heroes (1959) that the movie is influenced by.

Meanwhile Qi Ru-feng has decided that he is going to retire from the martial arts world at the age of 55. With all of his success as a swordsman he has created many enemies. Two brothers Smiling Tiger Cheng Tian Shou (Tang Ti) and Long-Armed Devil (called this because of his whip played effectively by the ubiquitous Yeung Chi-hing) have devised a way to destroy him and it involves a weapon that can render Qi's Dao sword that his entire school uses useless. The lesson behind this is to always teach your students to be proficient in more than one weapon and do not always cling to one approach to fighting. With Qi's best student missing (in more ways than one), and his other disciples being removed from this planet, his reign as head of the martial arts world seems to be at an end.

Wang Yu gives a good performance as the stoic brooding loner who is a combination of a wuxia hero and James Dean. He is not the most adept martial artist though. His Narcissist nature angered many actors and gave way to mediocre performances in the 1970s and beyond. Because of this and his later exploits in Taiwanese triads his reputation has suffered quite a bit among Hong Kong cinema fans. For the most part I tend to agree with the critics and fanboys on this except for his most famous One-Armed roles he seemed born to play (even if he does have two arms).

While the influences of such Japanese films as the Zatoichi series (these were shown in Hong Kong; later there would even be a Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman (1971)) are strong on this movie, it still has uniqueness to it that interests me. This would be a highly influential film to the Hong Kong audience not only on technical issues such as it is one of the earliest uses (and overuses) of hand-held camera in HK, but in thematic elements as well. It is enjoyable to see the whole martial art world questioned and Fang's subjugation to his principles are reminiscent of a Randolph Scott character in a Budd Boetticher western. This movie would spawn several sequels, remakes and retreads and certainly up the ante for use of blood packets, missing limbs and stomach slashes. While the action scenes might feel dated and might not be plentiful enough for some viewers, I still think it is one of the better Hong Kong films of the 1960s. It certainly is one of the most important.

I really enjoyed the extras on this release. The commentary by David Chute and Andy Klein is good, with David being the more knowledgeable of the two, with discussion on everything from biographies, homoerotic subtext and the meaning of the dao versus jian swords. I was happy to see Dragon Dynasty employ David Chute for this. However, the back cover has one little gaffe where it states Quentin Tarantino is on the commentary, which he is not. This has rightfully angered many reviewers. I just noticed another mistake ¨C they have Chang Cheh spelled Chang Cheuh on the credits on the back cover. The Master Chang Cheh (17:30) is a good documentary, but this is the same documentary that is on Ten Tigers of Kwangtung (R1 Tokyo Shock) except it has a different translation (it seems better on that one). The other highpoint is the Interview with star Jimmy Wang Yu (10:55). I did wish that was longer though. A nice little bonus is that fact that the original Shaw Brothers trailer is on here as well as several other original trailers. Too many Shaw Brothers releases have eschewed the original trailer for the new Celestial trailer (that is on here too) which just never feels right to me. In addition there are a Stills Gallery, an Interview with film critic/scholars David Chute & Andy Klein (8:08) and Commentator Biographies.

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: ewaffle
Date: 06/28/2007

“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

Reviewed by: cal42
Date: 06/15/2006
Summary: Death before dishonour

A servant foils a plot to kill Master Qi but is mortally wounded in the process. Grateful, Qi promises to take care of the servant’s son Fang Gung (Jimmy Wang-Yu). Skip ahead thirteen years, and Fang Gung is now a grown man, but is not taken seriously by his martial-arts brothers and Qi’s daughter Pei-Er (the stunningly beautiful Pan Yin-Tse). Qi has high hopes for Fang, intending to make him his successor and marry him to his daughter. However, when a couple of Qi’s disciples and Pei-Er take Fang into the forest and cuts one of his arms off, it kind of puts the kibosh on things. Fang is taken in by a simple country girl and recuperates nicely, swiftly adjusting to life as a one-armed swordsman. Which is fortunate, because his services are still required…

While the Beatles were preaching that all you needed was love and San Francisco embarked on the fabled Summer of Love, it seems director Chang Cheh dismissed the whole hippy movement and concentrated on killing people on screen with hitherto unheard-of violence. Heralding a new age of more realistic action films, One-Armed Swordsman (not to be confused with the 1976 film One-Armed SwordsMEN – which united Wang Yu with the hero from Chang Cheh’s final instalment of the One-Armed trilogy, David Chiang, for more one-armed fun than you could shake a sword-lock contraption at) set the template for many, many, many films to come.

It’s funny how many of Hong Kong’s trademark techniques have origins in other countries – One-Armed Swordsman is obviously an early attempt to emulate the popular Japanese swordplay films of the era.

Like all prototypes, all of the filmed techniques are a bit primitive and were perfected much later on in other productions. In particular, the unarmed (D’oh!) fight scenes are brief and eye-openingly basic even by the standards of films shot just a few years later. Even the swordplay scenes lack bite. If you want great swordplay from the same era, I would recommend HAVE SWORD, WILL TRAVEL instead. However, this film is a novelty in that it was the first of its type from Hong Kong, and it does contain some beautiful shots.

Although the plot is pretty straightforward, there are some pretty complex themes going on in the background, such as the love triangle between Fang, Qi’s daughter Pei-Er and the country girl who saves his life. Although how anyone can think that a man could have feelings for a woman who chopped his arm off is beyond me – stunningly beautiful though she is. The gimmick of Fang carrying his father’s broken sword with him at all times is quite effective - his enemies think he’s ‘armless, but the short sword comes in handy.

So. Jimmy Wang-Yu, then. I admit he’s not as bland in this as he is in some of his films, but he still appears to be unburdened by charisma and natural ability. Even the usually impartial and diplomatic Bey Logan once wrote of him: “this former swimming champion sometimes seemed intent on front crawling his opponents to death”. Says it all really, doesn’t it?

Anyway, as a tribute to this film’s Japanese heritage, I composed a Haiku to this film’s star that I wrote during the dull bits:

Oh, Jimmy Wang-Yu
Sometimes you are like summer
But mostly you suck.

Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: Sydneyguy
Date: 09/18/2004
Summary: After finally watchin this movie again after so many years......

Firstly WATCH OUT this movie title is the same as one produced in 1976, it's confusing!!

I watched this movie again and the impact of the movie was not as good as i orignally thought. Though Wang yu's characters is noble and just,he puts up with those around him that aren't so great to him. The suprise is how he loses his arm.

After that he meets a lonely gal who gives him a sword fighting book which is all torn up. While this is occurng, all enemies of this master begin the come for him and his students.

The ending was not what i remembered it to be. In fact i was a little disappointed with it. I know the movie is many years old but the ending is nothing special. Maybe re watching this after so many years my expectations were so high but i can not say this movie is a classic.


Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 08/23/2004
Summary: 10/10 - a genuine classic

One of the most influential martial arts films of all time, with an epic plot and innovative direction from Chang Cheh that changed the way martial arts films were made. I waited and saw this one in a theatre at a festival screening, but actually wish I saw it on DVD - i.e. without an audience that spent much of the first half laughing at some of the bad acting (of which there is a fair bit) and elements of the plot and dialogue, before eventually realising it was actually a good film and taking it more seriously. I don't understand why the face of the main villain was kept hidden until near the end - it didn't seem to be particularly meaningful when it was revealed (though I'd long since identified the actor by his voice). Anyway, definitely one of the must-see Shaws titles.

Worth noting that Tsui Hark's remake 'THE BLADE' is equally classic.

Reviewer Score: 10

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 04/11/2002
Summary: Classic swordplay movie

A talented student (Jimmy Wang Yu) is resented by the master's daughter (Chiao Chiao), so she challenges him to a duel. Wang Yu refuses to fight, but Chiao Chiao's rage cannot be contained, and she ends up cutting off his arm. The now crippled swordsman is nursed back to health by a peasant farmer, and seems poised to settle into a new life, but is called back to his school when his master is attacked. Unable to defeat the villains at first, Wang Yu returns to learn a devastating one-armed style before taking his revenge.

One Armed Swordsman is undoubtedly one of the most influential Hong Kong movies of all time. During this period, Shaw Bros. was losing a lot of business to Japanese swordplay films, and so they made a decision to make "harder" movies, and Chang Cheh was largely the spearhead of this movement. Though he had started to develop his formula with a couple of previous films, One Armed Swordsman was the one that cemented it, and created the template for countless kung fu movies to come. All of the classic elements are here, from the revenge plot to violent, weapons-based combat to a stoic and powerful anti-hero. The movie was a huge success upon its' release, and spawned a series of sequels and outright knockoffs, such as One Armed Swordswoman. One Armed Swordsman's influence continued into the modern period of Hong Kong movies, with films like Tsui Hark's The Blade.

Though it might seem dated by today's standards, One Armed Swordsman still provides some excitement for the modern viewer, mostly through Jimmy Wang Yu's performance. Though he was never formally trained in martial arts (Wang Yu was a champion water polo player -- this casting also heralded a trend, as it showed that "real" martial artists could be replaced by more general actors), Wang Yu manages to create an interesting and powerful hero that still captivates audiences to this day. Some elements of One Armed Swordsman might come off as almost amateurish and slow-moving, but one must keep in mind that the modern kung fu movie was in its' infancy at this point. So, no, you won't get guys flying around or gushes of blood with One Armed Swordsman, but you will get a solid story with some excellent acting, something which many modern action films -- even with their huge budgets and greater techincal know-how -- can never match.

[review from]

Reviewed by: pjshimmer
Date: 06/18/2001
Summary: One of the BIGGEST classics of all time

It's a classic, No doubt about that.

Well, the pacing is the slowest I've ever seen; the action looks pretty good compared to, say, Trail of the Broken Blade and Golden Swallow.

The movie is full of surprises. The music for instance, is something I never expected from such an early production. But it's great! There are several times when Wang Yu displays so much emotion that you forget he's acting, which is always good for the audience.

And the plot, of course, is the main attraction. It is so good, despite the slow pacing. This is not a movie anyone should miss.


Reviewed by: battlemonkey
Date: 12/21/1999

A supreme swordsman is saved from a murderous attack by hisservant, who dies in his master's place. The swordsman takes the servant's son, Fong Kong as his own, teaching him everything that he knows. The swordsman's daughter grows jealous of Fong, and in an attack she orchestrates, Fong's arm is lopped off. He is cared for by another woman, but their life together is quickly disrupted when a rival martial arts school starts killing off everyone. Fong defends himself but is badly beat up. He studies diligently and learns the one-armed sword technique, then returns and slaughter everyone. This was a ground-breaking film. Sword-hero films were not rare, but this was the first of the films to feature extreme violence and brutality, which would become the staple of all the kung fu films to follow. It is also probably Wang Yu's best film, or at least among them.

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

This is definitely a classic. What sets this movie apart is the mood and drama. Yes, there is great action and plenty of it, but there is more to it than that. I highly recommend it. Its a must see.


[Reviewed by Adam Scott Pritzker]