Friday 10 February 2023

The One Armed Swordsman (1967)

Director: Chang Cheh
Writers: Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang
Stars: Wang Yu, Chiao Chiao, Pan Yin-Tze and Huang Chung-Hsin

Index: 2023 Centennials.

I was born too late to remember the heyday of Bruce Lee, the man who brought martial arts cinema to the western world. I arrived only a few years later, just in time to see Jackie Chan conquer Asia with his particular brand of martial arts, stuntwork and comedy, then wait for the rest of the world to catch up to his genius. I was immediately hooked on films such as Project A, Armour of God and Wheels on Meals and was eager to see more. I’ve stayed with the genre as it’s moved forward, with new legends moving martial arts onward. Bruce Lee was followed by Jackie Chan, but Jackie Chan was followed by Jet Li and Donnie Yen. They were followed in turn by Tony Jaa, who was followed by Iko Uwais and who knows who’s going to be the next legend. Eventually, I learned that Bruce Lee wasn’t the beginning of this progression, the line in the sand from which everything else began. Before him was Wang Yu, credited in the west as Jimmy Wang Yu, and he was a pioneer in more than one genre, even though others came before him too.

You see, martial arts isn’t just one genre in China and there are three genres that come into play here. Bruce Lee, for all that he was a dab hand with nunchucks and bo staffs, made kung fu movies, a genre focused on unarmed martial arts. Much of what we see in the early Bruce Lee movies can be traced directly back to The Chinese Boxer, a 1970 film written, directed by and starring Wang Yu, which defined many of the tropes of the genre that launched in its wake. Before that film, though, Wang Yu made wuxia pictures, martial arts movies where “martial” meant “armed”, a crucial distinction, and “armed” usually meant with swords. Wuxia remains with us today, in many of Jet Li’s films, and the first wuxia movie to make a million Hong Kong dollars at the box office was another Wang Yu movie, The One Armed Swordsman, directed by Chang Cheh, who would have been a hundred years old today. This is also a decent example of the third genre too, heroic bloodshed, pioneered by Chang and so ably evolved by John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat.

Looking back at The One Armed Swordsman well over half a century later, it’s easy to see how it served as a link in a chain, not merely the one I mentioned above, establishing Wang Yu as a huge star and paving the way for Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat. It’s also a clear link between period drama, the sort of story ritualised in Chinese opera, and action cinema, because it’s almost two hours long and what martial arts we see is there not for its own sake but for the sake of the story, a traditional one about love and honour and loss. Wang Yu plays Fang Gang, a servant elevated in position due to the heroism of his father, Fang Cheng, who briefly becomes the epitome of the honour and loyalty of the good guys, even in the face of dishonour and cheating of the bad guys, the two sides represented by two factions. Fang works for Master Qi Ru-feng, a master swordsman, who is knocked out by poisonous incense secreted in a letter, but he’s saved from cold blooded murder by Fang, who fights off an invading horde long enough for his master to recover.

In return, Master Qi takes Fang Gang, then a child, as his disciple and raises him as his nephew, an honour he’s keen to acknowledge with loyalty that goes far beyond what we might expect. Early in the film, Qi’s spoiled daughter, Qi Pei-er, and two disciples of high stature who are yet to learn any of the virtues that Qi’s students will eventually acquire, pick on him to the degree that he leaves, in hopes that it’ll bring peace to his master’s home. Of course, they choose to give him a send-off, in the woods that night under a neat sprinkling of snow, and, while he defeats them all easily, the petty Qi Pei-er reacts to her own defeat by ruthlessly lashing out with a sword and cutting off his right arm, his sword arm. At least she has the decency to be shocked at her actions, given that she secretly loves him, but not enough decency to actually go after him. That only happens after her father arrives at the scene, horrified at the news, and by then it’s too late. Fang Gang has stumbled onward to a bridge and, weak from loss of blood, fallen into a river.

So they believe him dead and gone, so Master Qi can mourn and make other plans for his upcoming fifty-fifth birthday, on which he was planning to announce Fang Gang as his successor and his son-in-law, before retiring from martial arts. However, we watch him land in a boat passing under the bridge, propelled by a young farmer called Xiao Man, and she takes him to Grandpa Wang who does enough to save his life, even though his sword arm is long gone. Of course, his immediate depression passes eventually and he starts learning how to catch fish with one arm and then progresses up to figuring out how he can adapt his martial arts to his condition. What’s telling here is that there’s a battle of words between Fang Gang and Xiao Man that underpins everything that happens. He wants to learn martial arts to honour his master and to be able to protect his new friend, who’s promptly attacked by thugs who plan to rape her and kill him. However, she wants him to become a farmer and live a peaceful life. Martial artists die. Like her dad.

And, as Fang Gang starts to adapt to his new life as a farmer, while still working on his martial arts, we wonder where the story will take us. We expect Fang Gang to continue on as the lead character but we don’t expect him to do so at the expense of Master Qi and his daughter. There are plot strands unresolved here. Well, this is where the thugs come in, because they work for the bad guys, the ones that Master Qi is worried about. Their leader is Long Armed Devil and he’s aided by his brother, Smiling Tiger Cheng Tianshou, both of whom plan revenge against Master Qi for beating Long Armed Devil in a fight long ago. Nobody ever forgets a grudge in the heroic bloodshed genre, even if it was never warranted to begin with. While the run of the mill thugs are idiots, Long Armed Devil is a clever man and he’s designed a device to lock the golden swords of Qi’s disciples during combat, opening them up to defeat with a stroke from a second short sword. And, what’s more, it works, because none of these disciples sees through it.

And so Fang Gang finds himself taking up a sword again, albeit the broken sword of his father to wield with his left hand, to defend his master, even though his experience there left him maimed. Honour and allegiance don’t end with being maimed and self-exiled. They’re absolutes in heroic bloodshed, right down to one of Master Qi’s disciples committing suicide during the final battle against Long Armed Devil and his two capable henchmen, Ding Peng and Ba Shuang, because he doesn’t see any way to win and so chooses death at his own hand before dishonour. That’s taking things a little too far, but those who fight, even knowing that they’re sure to lose, live up to the ideals of the genre and, true to Xiao Man’s prediction, honed from personal experience, a whole lot of people die before this movie wraps up, most of them victims of Long Armed Devil’s dastardly sword lock. And here’s another reason why this is a drama even more than it’s a martial arts movie, because we’re used to cheats in such movies and the good guys adapt. Not here.

This film has generally held up pretty well in the estimation of the Chinese public. When the Hong Kong Film Awards compiled a list of the hundred greatest Chinese language films in 2005 to celebrate a hundred years of them being made, it was ranked 15th, behind the wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the heroic bloodshed film A Better Tomorrow, both of which owe a huge debt to The One Armed Swordsman. Bruce Lee’s highest film was Fist of Fury in 16th place and Jackie Chan’s was Drunken Master at 33. Of course, the list wasn’t restricted to martial arts, but it highlights how well remembered this picture was. Modern action cinema fans might find it more problematic. After all, there’s an entire trope around adapting your martial arts to cater to cheats. Jean-Claude van Damme beat Bolo Yeung in Bloodsport, even after he was blinded during the match. He adapted. That not one of Master Qi’s disciples saw the danger of the sword lock and proved able to adapt to counter it doesn’t say much for his teachings.

That the only sworsdman who does is a former student who is missing his right arm is telling in many ways. For one, it tells us that the teaching that really mattered to Fang Gang wasn’t to do with how to wield a sword but to do with what honour means and that was as much due to what his servant father did at the end of his life as anything that Master Qi taught him. For another, it suggests that the knowledge in the half-burned book that’s the sole possession of her father’s that Xiao Man owns is rather important, even though we never learn who her parents really were; that plot strand is left hanging. And, for a third, it highlights how the massive disability inflicted on Fang Gang isn’t enough to stop him. He can still figure out how to fight and to hold the high ground, which is just as important when it comes to Qi Pei-er. This opens the door to other films like The Crippled Masters, though Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman, whom the One Armed Swordsman would meet in 1971, was already well established at this point.

While this appears dated in its action, not to mention the unrealistically red blood that flows copiously, it’s still very watchable as a heroic bloodshed period drama. Wang Yu is suitably dark and brooding as the tragic hero of the piece; Chiao Chiao is delightful as a plain but decent orphan who naturally falls for her charge; and Pan Yin-Tze is a suitably pouty spoiled girl who lashes out when she’s denied her way. They’re all archetypes, really, as are Tien Feng as Master Qi Ru-Feng and Yeung Chi-Hing as Long Armed Devil. My favourite, though, was Tang Ti as Smiling Tiger, because he’s never in charge of anything but he constantly thinks he is and he’s the more visible villain, given much to do while his brother remains in the shadows until he’s needed for the final battle. Only Wang Yu and Chiao Chiao returned for Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, though Tien Feng showed up in a different role. Of course, the first million dollar grossing Hong Kong movie was going to see a sequel, with Fang Gang facing off against eight master swordsmen.

After that, Chang Cheh made a third movie, but sans Wang Yu as Fang Gang, instead bringing in David Chiang as The New One-Armed Swordsman in 1971. Wang Yu would combine his One Armed Swordsman and Chinese Boxer roles the same year for One-Armed Boxer and then three sequels, the first of which, Master of the Flying Guillotine, would be a massive influence on Quentin Tarantino, just as a variety of the filmmakers who had been influenced by Chang’s work would be too. For instance, Reservoir Dogs was a loose remake of half of City on Fire, a Hong Kong crime film by Ringo Lam, who followed very much in Chang Cheh’s heroic bloodshed footsteps. John Woo, whose influence is everywhere in Tarantino’s work, has listed Chang as his chief influence, having worked with him on quite a few titles. More directly, Tarantino acknowledged the direct influence of Chang by including him as a dedicatee on Kill Bill: Vol 2. The amount of films that sit in direct lineage from The One Armed Swordsman is mind-boggling.

Chang was born in Shanghai but started making movies in Taiwan. He started in the business as a screenwriter, writing The Woman with the False Face in 1947, the first Mandarin film shot in Taiwan. His first directorial work was on Happenings in Ali-Shan in 1950, the first Mandarin film produced by a Taiwanese company. The success of The Cruel Heart of My Man, starring Li Mei, in 1957 prompted her to invite him to Hong Kong to write a picture for her there, but it didn’t provide him the access for which he hoped, so he wrote film reviews for a Taiwanese newspaper and pseudonymous novels to pay the bills. His credits started to rack up in the sixties, back in Hong Kong, where he’d become the primary screenwriter for Shaw Brothers. Eventually they put him in the director’s chair with his first solo directorial effort being Tiger Boy in 1966, only a year before he made it big with The One Armed Swordsman, which set his career and the Shaw Brothers bottom line on a very steady footing.

He never left wuxia behind or indeed period drama, but he moved into kung fu movies in the seventies, working with Liu Chia-Liang as his fight choreographer on a slew of movies, especially those featuring the Venoms. When I started diving deeply into Hong Kong cinema in the late eighties, courtesy of a series of well presented films on the Made in Hong Kong video label, The Five Deadly Venoms was one classic kung fu flick that I thoroughly enjoyed. He also worked often with actors Ti Lung and David Chiang, who would both become much bigger stars later, building on their work for Chang, and Alexander Fu Sheng, whose promise was cut off after he died in a car accident at only twenty-eight. The former pair can perhaps best be seen in films like Vengeance and Blood Brothers, the heroic bloodshed pictures that presaged Ti’s work in the pivotal A Better Tomorrow trilogy for John Woo, while the latter became a star with the Brave Archer trilogy, alongside some of the Venoms.

It’s hard to emphasise just how important Chang Cheh, born in mainland China with skills honed in Taiwan, was to the Hong Kong film industry, one of the most vibrant of world cinemas from the seventies to the nineties. They don’t call him the Godfather of the Kung Fu Film or the Godfather of Hong Kong Cinema for nothing. He changed so much, bringing with him influences from abroad, luminaries like Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah the obvious sources for much of his style and his use of violence, which was unprecedented at the time. The One Armed Swordsman doesn’t just feature the maiming of the primary character, amidst much bloodflow; it features all sorts of violence that went far beyond what martial arts films did at the time. And it wasn’t unusual. Many Chang Cheh films would feature dismemberment as a key theme, the crippling of action heroes seen as an element of tragedy. And talking of tragedy, he died in 2002 at the age of 79, just after receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

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