31 Aug One Armed Swordsman Review By Silver Emulsion Film Reviews
This year marks the 50th anniversary of The One–Armed Swordsman, so it’s a great time to re-examine Chang Cheh’s early masterpiece. The film’s legacy has never been in question; it was the first Hong Kong film to gross over HK$1 million, and it launched the career of the first kung fu star of the modern era, Jimmy Wang Yu. More importantly, its success placed Chang Cheh in the position of stewarding the genre in the direction he was artistically driven towards. This would eventually lead to many significant advancements (like the Republic-era setting and the Shaolin films), and it also paved a path of success for his frequent collaborators (specifically choreographers Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia, and screenwriter Ni Kuang). But all of this is fairly standard talk when discussing The One–Armed Swordsman, so I’d like to delve into something different.
I recently wrote a new review of Come Drink With Me for this site, the other movie that really kick-started the modern era of martial arts filmmaking. The differences between the two movies are striking. King Hu’s film is at once visually arresting and confident. It communicates its story in a masterful way that makes you anticipate each upcoming scene. It was Hu’s 3rd film (of 15 total), and the beginning of a consecutive string of undeniable martial arts masterpieces. Chang’s One–Armed Swordsman starts off on much shakier ground. In the opening moments, a sword strike is about a foot away from hitting its target, yet the man goes flying. The feeling of confidence and surety in the editing and the storytelling is noticeably weaker, which I feel speaks to the relative inexperience of Chang Cheh. This was actually Chang’s 7th credit as a director (of 94 films total!), and this disparity also reveals a striking difference between King Hu and Chang Cheh’s approach to filmmaking.
King Hu was known for being a perfectionist who would labor for years, writing, shooting and editing his films to his liking. King Hu strikes me as an artist who knew exactly what he wanted to make, so when given the chance he strove to craft that vision as best he could. Chang Cheh was more the type to never stop working, powering through each film and then immediately moving on to the next. A part of this is just the Shaw Brothers non-stop method of film production, but even the busiest Shaw directors never quite reached the prolific stature of Chang Cheh. During these early years, and continuing well into the 1970s, Chang Cheh considered himself an artist in search of something fresh to dig into. His films surely carry a lot of thematic similarities — they were all made by the same man, after all — but the artistic core of each is unique. It’s staggering just how strong his films are considering the pace they must have been made at. The perfection of King Hu was highly influential, but Chang Cheh’s relentless artistic drive shaped not just the martial arts genre, but the entire Hong Kong industry. Chang even got a chance to re-imagine the world of King Hu with his follow-up to Come Drink With Me: Golden Swallow.
The One–Armed Swordsman is just as much a drama as it is an action film. Chang Cheh was always interested in melding affecting drama with action, and this film is the first great example of this in his filmography (other greats include The Assassin, The Savage Five, and Disciples of Shaolin). In contrast, King Hu focused more on tension and storytelling than deep character study, so his films feel more emotionally detached than the standard Chang Cheh picture. In The One–Armed Swordsman, the character of Fang Gang (Jimmy Wang Yu) is loaded up with all kinds of emotional baggage that both helps and hinders his progression through life. The film opens as his father, Fang Chang (Ku Feng), defends Master Qi Ru Feng (Tien Feng) from a group of bandits who had their robbery thwarted by Qi Ru Feng. Fang Chang defeats the attackers, but he also dies in the process. Qi Ru Feng vows to take care of and train Fang Gang in thanks for his father’s act of heroism. Before he is even a participant within it, the martial life has impacted Fang Gang’s life in a catastrophic way, and it will continue to do so throughout the film. He tries to leave the martial life behind, but it’s not as simple as that. The martial world is built up on a series of transgressions, jealousy and vengeance that keep on rolling from person to person like a wheel. It is an unforgiving world that demands respect. Fang Gang learned this lesson early when his father died, and other characters who have yet to learn this don’t fare quite as well as Fang in this world.
The action represents an example of both the greatness and the infancy of choreography at the time. The focus is on exciting action that draws in the audience, whereas the action of Come Drink With Me contains more implication and abstraction. Both directors sought to make art, but they worked at different ends of the entertainment spectrum. The One–Armed Swordsman is more effectively choreographed than its contemporaries, but I am hesitant to objectively call the action “great.” It is most certainly great within the context of its time, though, and I think this is how older films should always be viewed. Obviously, they must also retain some charm that keeps them entertaining, but if you want to truly enjoy older films, context is a necessary component. Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia craft action sequences that are viscerally exciting, thanks in part to the groundbreaking handheld camerawork of Chang Cheh. If I’m not mistaken, this was the first use of handheld in Hong Kong, and it makes the action here far more effective than it otherwise would have been.
The One–Armed Swordsman is one of the most important films in world cinema history, as well as Chang Cheh’s first great work. He would go on to make many movies that are more effective or more entertaining, but the legacy of The One–Armed Swordsman arguably outshines them all. Together with Come Drink With Me, The One–Armed Swordsman defined the early years of the martial arts genre and what it could be at its best. Both are essential films well worth your time.