Shaw Brothers Saturdays: Sadly, ‘The One Armed Swordsman’ cannot overcome all of his handicaps
Directed by Chang Cheh
Written by Chang Cheh and Kuang Ni
Hong Kong, 1967
One knows exactly when it has happened. Any movie aficionado is familiar with that odd feeling which takes over when one has watched a film that manages to overcome its flaws and provide some solid entertainment despite it all. There is no hiding that the film is imperfect. Some of the flaws may be glaring, but what it does well, it does marvellously. This is the sentiment felt while watching one of director Chang Cheh’s more popular films, 1967’s The One Armed Swordsman. More than once a sense of exhilaration washes over like a tidal wave, which thankfully made up for the moments which floundered. For this reason, one salutes director Chang Che, who pulls off quite the job even though his film is hampered, at times, by a strange script and really bogus storytelling methods. Enough with the intro and on with the juicy details.
Chang Che’s film shares the tale of Fang Kang (Jimmy Wang), the son of a servant who gave up his life to protect his master, Qi Ru Er (Tien Feng), when Kang was only a small boy. To pay respect to the request uttered by the boy’s father in his last breath, Qi Ru takes Kang as a pupil and teaches him the martial arts of his house, along with the other, more well off students, or ‘brothers’ as they are called. Flash forward a good few years and Kang is a young adult, a solid student, but scorned by his brothers for his petty familial background. Qi Ru’s daughter, Pei Er (Angela Pan), takes a liking to Kang, but cannot relinquish her own snobbish ways, and therefore never succeeds in truly seducing the young, handsome man. In a fit of fury, she accidentally slices of Kang’s arm one night in the forest as the two confronted each other. Kang, now bloodied, severely injured and exhausted, is found by the peace loving Xiao Man (Lisa Chiao Chiao) who nurses him back to health. Kang is living a peaceful life until the day he finds out that his former master’s old enemies, Smiling Tiger (Tang Ti) and Long Armed Devil (Yeung Chi-hing), are planning to attack the man on his 55th birthday. Kang is compelled to return to his previous home to help out, but how can he do so with only one arm?
As stated in the introductory paragraph, Swordsman is a tale of two halves. Luckily, what works well does so sufficiently for the movie to be enjoyable at the end of the day, but by golly does it ever make some silly decisions. While watching these Shaw Brothers films, some might come to notice that few, if any, run at over 2 hours. Most are around the 90 minute range. One of several possible reasons for this rests with the sort of stories the filmmakers have to tell and the requirements of offering elaborate, escapist action set pieces. By the 90 minute mark, everything has been told and the viewer has been assaulted with some bloody good stunts and sword fights, sometimes literally bloody, which makes them even better. When the movies from this studio start to flirt with the two hour mark, which is the case with the film currently under review, things can begin to feel needlessly stretched. The individual moments might be alright, perhaps entertaining in their own right, but in the grander scheme of things, especially with regards to story and pacing, they feel superfluous. Swordsman is fraught with sword fights. It is loaded with sword fights. It is, abundant in sword fights. Sounds like a beautiful thing upon considering that this is a Shaw Brothers production, does it not? In some respects it is indeed a beautiful, joyous thing, for all the skill and incredible cinematography involved (more on that later). However, about ¾ of the fights develop in exactly the same fashion, with little to distinguish one from the other. At the risk of spoiling a bit of the film, the antagonists, Long Armed Devil and Smiling Tiger, have developed a special sword, an instrument of combat they baptise the ‘lock sword’ because it is melded in order to have a unique mechanism at the tip of the blade to ‘lock’ an opponent’s blade. When their opposite is no longer in control of their weapon, the villains then extract a knife from their robes and gut the opponent to death. It a suitably brilliant technique for a villain. It is an interesting way of using a little clever idea and simple sword making technology in order to add another dimension, another purpose, to a blade. Tiger, Devil and their henchmen then go on to surprise attack Qi Ru’s disciples before launching a final attack on the grandmaster himself on his birthday. The viewer is then shown attack, upon attack, upon attack, which all end the same. It is perfectly alright to show off the audacious new battle strategy a couple of times, just so the audience knows what is in store for the finale, but Chang Cheh gives so many identical fight scenes that it really gets boring after a while. The climax itself is even more frustrating in that Kang comes to rescue just before Long Armed Devil is about to vanquish the few remaining disciples and Qi Ru himself. Granted, Kang had to do battle with Smiling Tiger on the way to Qi Ru’s home, but there is nonetheless a sense of uncalled silliness to the entire affair. Every time a disciple is killed, a few more then try to avenge them, only to have their swords ‘locked’ as well, and so on and so forth… Swordsman knows it has a unique idea about it pertaining to the sword fighting, but it totally abuses it.
There are some more basic storytelling aspects that ring hollow as well. Earlier in the film, Kang, prior to having his arm severed, demonstrates admirable skill as a swordsman. This, of course, is after years of practice under the tutelage of Qi Ru. Shortly after the infamous accident, when attempting to defend his new girlfriend Xiao Man, kang fails miserably. With only one arm, all the techniques he has learned are proven useless. Because the script demands it, Xiao Man is in possession of a half burned book about martial arts, which she lends to Kang because he literally keeps moping about how useless he has become since losing his arm (another element the film seems determined to hammer into the viewer’s mind: look at how sad and useless Kang is now!). A few weeks later, Kang is the most ruthless and efficient swordsman in the entire land. Oh, really? So he needs years of training under a grandmaster to become as good as he was when he had two arms, but a half burned book is enough to make a total bad ass in the span of a couple weeks (maybe a few months at most) when he has one arm? Yes, Shaw Brothers stories are not supposed to be taken too seriously, but there is only so much one can accept.
Now that the movie has been sufficiently beaten to a pulp, it might be time to end the review on these positive aspects which have been mysteriously referred to and which made the movie an enjoyable experience despite all the problems analysed in the previous paragraphs. For one, even though the sword fights grow repetitive after a while, they are really well acted out and filmed. Before becoming tedious, there is a true sense of thrill and danger to the battles. Every character who takes hold of a sword and waves around in attack or in defence looks great doing just that. The eventual final battle between Kang and Long Armed Devil is incredibly well done and features some inventive fighting moments that were a pleasant surprise.
Earlier the sublime cinematography was alluded to, and is it ever gorgeous. There are certainly some Shaw Brothers productions that look handsome, but among those this movie fan has watched thus far, The One Armed Swordsman is a cut above the rest. There is dynamic movement to the camera, both during the calmer dialogue sequences and during the frenetic fights. Director Chang Che has a perfect understanding of geography and space within a location, of where characters are situation in relation to one another as well as in relation to objects in the periphery, some of which can be used as weapons themselves. The pans are nothing short of exquisite, and do a tremendous job at conveying the emotions rushing through various scenes. Despite that the the script is on the weak side in trying to install some emotional gravitas to the story and its protagonist, the visuals do their best to make up for it.
Chang Che’s The One Armed Swordsman is a curious case where it takes some seriously flawed routes, more flawed than the often charming flaws found in 60s and 70s Shaw Brothers movies, but comes out on top nonetheless thanks to a few specific qualities that struck perfect notes. The film has a massively loyal fanbase, and so any negative remarks may receive a cold welcome. In the end, the movie cannot earn a strongest recommendation, but it may attract new followers given the iconic nature of its titular hero.