Wednesday, January 29, 2014

One Armed Swordsman (Du Bi Dao, 1967)

The next flick we've got for you here at Hai!Karate is a classic staple for all lovers of fight cinema, One Armed Swordsman!! This film stars Jimmy Wang Yu, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Tien Feng and Ku Feng among others. The legend Cheng Cheh sits in the director's chair for this film from Shaw Studios.

One Armed Swordsman opens with a group of villains entering the manor of Qi Ru Feng (Tien)with the purpose of defeating him and the Golden Sword School. His servant Fang Cheng(Feng) valiantly fights them off, and is mortally wounded. Before he passes however, Master Qi Ru Feng swears to take his son Fang Gang in. We fast forward to seeing Fang Gang(Wang Yu)all grown up, tending to the estate and learning from Teacher Qi. Teacher's daughter Qi Pai Er (Violet Pang Zi-Yi)is a spoiled little thing who alternates between dislike and liking Fang Gang. Fang Gang? He mostly remains aloof. After a good deal of being picked on, Fang Gang, rather than be the source of any unrest in the school, decides to leave one night. Pai-Er and two other classmates track him down and claim he's dishonoring the school by running away. (Seriously?)Pai-Er decides she wants to scrap, and Fang Gang deftly blocks her attacks and knocks her over as if to say, 'Silly Rabbit.' Pai-Er cries, embarrassed. So much so that when Fang Gang tries to help her up, SHE CUTS THE HOMIE'S ARM CLEAN OFF. Cue the wild dramatic music sequence. After he stumbles off into the snowy forest hinterland, Teacher comes up and just scolds everyone in the trio. That's it. He just yells at them.

Fang Gang stumbles and stumbles until he falls off a bridge...into the boat of Xiao Man(Chiao Chiao)She slowly nurses him back to health and in doing so, falls in love with him. After he heals, Fang Gang and Xiao Man are discussing the future when two rowdies start harassing Xiao. Gang tries to fight them off to no avail. They're only stopped when Master Smiling Tiger(Tong Dik) waves them off. Xiao Man, against her own dislike of martial arts, gives Gang a sword manual left to her by her father. Due to a fire, all that's left are left-handed sword techniques. Meanwhile, Smiling Tiger, the sworn enemy of the Golden Sword School, has unleashed a new weapon that can defeat the school's 64 techniques called a sword lock. With this, Smiling Tiger and his pupils go on to terrorize Qi Ru Feng's students. That is, until Fang Gang shows up. He soon realizes the fate of the Golden Sword School is in his hands. And along the way, he gets to throw some serious shade to Pai-Er who's still acting bratty.

One Armed Swordsman is a highly acclaimed martial arts film and it's a groundbreaking one on a couple of levels. First, it was the first Hong Kong film to gross one million dollars due to its popularity. The next point of appeal lies with its charismatic young star, Jimmy Wang Yu. Jimmy was just setting out on the apex of his flashy and lengthy career, a far cry from being a swimming champion. It's worthy to note that he had NO martial arts training whatsoever. Yes, that's right. None. He looked the part thanks to the action direction of the great Lau Kar Leung(who you can spot as an extra in the flick)and Runme Shaw himself. Wang Yu would go on to utilize the one-armed style effectively throughout his career, even going up against famed Japanese character Zatoichi in a 1972 flick. And lastly, the style that Chang Cheh brought to One Armed Swordsman was the beginning of a new wave taking place in Hong Kong cinema. It was a wave that borrowed from the chambara genre wildly popular in Japan. It also owed some influence to westerns by Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. You can see it in the camera angles and precise editing jumps, whereas in previous films most shots were long drawn out set pieces and takes. Take note also on how the film backdrop by Johnson Tsao helps tell the Story of Fang Gang's development from the harshness of losing his arm in winter to his return to the Golden Sword School to face Smiling Tiger in the summer.

Of course, there are a few things that catch you off guard. For one, Pai-Er seems to have been an early ancestor to those broads you see on shows like 'Bad Girls Club'; always upset, hiding her true feelings in certain rash moves. Xiao Man doesn't fare that much better even in a sympathetic love interest role. She tends to fall over herself weeping a lot. Given the charges against Cheh's depiction of women that we've spoken of on this blog, this seems to be ground zero for it. 'Dames can't be trusted.' This also is possibly a reach back to Hollywood cinema in the days of film noir. And after Fang Gang gets his arm cut off - how did this cat not pass out right there on the road? The sword lock is another curious point, but one you can overlook for the sake of the film. It also would be the origin point for Chang Cheh's love of crazy-ass weaponry.

If you haven't seen it yet, make it a point to watch One Armed Swordsman. You get a better understanding of the beginnings of Chang Cheh and his style that would become synonymous with the Shaw Brothers Studios for the next couple of decades afterward. And it's a nicely paced action film with enough captivating drama no matter how often you watch it.

DRAGON PUNCHES: 4.5 out of 5

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