We look at the classic Cheng Cheh film that defined the shape of wuxia on screen from the late 60s on…
On American television in the 60s, he was a shadowy, elusive figure; continually pursued by David Janssen in the role of Dr. Richard Kimble on the series The Fugitive. Over two decades later, it was an image David Lynch would deliberately recall when he cast Al Strobel as Mike in Twin Peaks. Originally intended to be a small role, he became the ex-partner in crime of one of the most menacing characters to have graced television, the longhaired, denim-dressed Bob. But in Hong Kong in 1967 – just a few short weeks before Dr. Kimble finally caught up with his nemesis – a far more heroic vision was being cast that would reverberate throughout Asia: the One-Armed Swordsman.
It should have been just another wuxia movie from the legendary Shaw Brothers studio; another chivalrous tale of heroism so popular in cinemas across Hong Kong and China. But there was more to what even Run Run Shaw himself dubbed ‘the first film that could be called a kung fu film’…
In One-Armed Swordsman we find Fang Kang, a young pupil of a martial arts school that prides itself on swordsmanship, ostracised from his fellow students due to his poor background. A confrontation with rivals and his sifu’s daughter (whose attentions he shuns) leads to his arm being severed, more accidentally than deliberate. Stumbling away he falls, almost literally, into the arms of a peasant girl who nurses him back to health.
His right arm gone, he must relearn his martial abilities from scratch using the precious broken blade his father used when he gave his life protecting the protecting the school, together a scroll on sword-fighting passed down to the girl by her father. But when old enemies threaten the school with a cunning new weapon that renders their swords powerless, Fang faces a choice between his new life as a farmer and the honourable path of following the footsteps of his father to defend the school.
Both director Chang Cheh (Zhang Che) and lead star Jimmy Wang Yu where rising stars within the Shaw Brothers studio, having collaborated on several films together including Tiger Boy, Magnificent Trio and Trail of the Broken Blade. In Wang Yu, Chang recognised he had found a male star in the mould of a Hollywood leading man. Perhaps hard to believe now, Hong Kong cinema of the mid-60s had been dominated by female stars. Chang realised that casting male leads and employing more masculine plots would still appeal to female audiences without deterring male viewers in the process. Here he imbued Wang Yu’s character with James Dean’s teenage alienation and questions of class; themes that would resonate with younger cinema-going audiences across Asia.
This ‘yanggang’, as he called it, would become the cornerstone for Hong Kong filmmaking, changing the shape of it forever. Male leads would dominate the big screen, with stars like Bruce Lee, David Chiang and Ti Lung. Though it’s hard to imagine what would have been without them, it had the opposite effect on actresses in the 70s, where roles often limited to submissive, even erotic, save for the undeniably feisty Angela Mao Ying.
The Shaw Brothers studio actively encouraged their staff to look elsewhere for inspiration (even occasionally nabbing directors from outside of China and Hong Kong like Umetsugu Inoue and Chung Chang-Wha). Young directors like Chang and King Hu (Come Drink With Me) were looking to Japan and the West for pacing, taking the static nature that wuxia genre films had been up to that point and injecting them with realism, faster editing and showy action sequences. The gadgetry of the weapons the enemies use against the school wouldn’t look out of place in 60s spy film, and here we find an early instance of another facet of Hong Kong film that would reach its zenith with the Flying Guillotine films of the mid-70s.
It’s through the One-Armed Swordsman’s disability that we find its key influence, the long-running, successful Japanese series Zatoichi, about a blind swordsman who masquerades as a harmless masseur and gambler. In fact the notion of a one-armed warrior was not exactly unheard of. In the Chinese classical novel the Water Margin, one of the greatest ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’ Wu Song’s left arm is sliced off in the battle of Muzho; much like Fang in One-Armed Swordsman. In the 1920s Japan, author Kaitarō Hasegawa (under his pen-name Hayashi Fubō) created Tange Sazen, a one-eyed, one-armed swordsman who quicky became so popular three companies rushed to complete film versions of his adventures in the same year, and also appearing in Sadao Yamanaka’s The Million Ryo Pot.
The plot, co-written by Chang and prolific screenwriter and novelist Ni Kuang would create a pivotal moment in wuxia film. The crucial difference between Fang and Zatoichi, and all the wuxia heroes that came before, being that there abilities are never in question, whereas Fang must relearn his through rigorous training, and it’s his particular situation and experiences that give him the upper hand.
This is the point wuxia martial art films became kung fu. It’s now a familiar trope: no matter how great the foe or how big the setback or obstacle with perseverance and respect for traditions you could retrain, learn anew, and your experiences would make you better. In one swoop Chang had instilled the traditional wuxia with 60s themes of teenage rebellion, class and crowd pleasing action. A phenomenal success, it was the first Hong Kong film to make HK$1 million at the local box office.
Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang would get plenty of opportunities to perfect their kung fu template, often weighing heavily on revenge, collaborating on The Five Venoms, Boxer from Shantung, Heroes Two, Five Shaolin Masters and Invincible Shaolin. Amongst over 200 film credits and numerous novels, including science fiction characters Wisely and Dr. Yuan, Ni would also go on to write kung fu masterpieces like Bruce Lee’s Fist Of Fury and Gordon Liu’s The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin.
Though many of its elements may have been improved upon subsequently, One-Armed Swordsman is more emotive in its telling than many of its successors, even offering its eponymous lead a happy ending, as he turns his back on the martial art life to become a farmer. (Having been offered the classic sort of decision that that would you’d find in a John Hughes movie: best friend from the same class or popular posh girl, as seen in Some Kind Of Wonderful and Pretty In Pink.) It echoes the fate of Water Margin’s Wu Song, who when offered the chance to take an official position he turns his back on that life, instead practising Buddhism until his death. But wait – did you think it would end there?
Return of The One-Armed Swordsman was almost inevitable, with Chang and Wang Yu at the helm. It followed the predictable rules of sequels: greater body counts; loads more preposterous weapons; and sadly, lesser character development. Chang and Ni returned with an effective reboot (which wouldn’t be the last) in the form The New One-Armed Swordsman starring David Chiang. That same year, the original would reprise his role against the character that shaped him in Zatoichi meets The One-Armed Swordsman. (In a canny move, the filmmakers aledgedly shot two endings to the film: one for the Japanese market and one for the Chinese, where the local hero wins in each.)
For much of his career Wang Yu risked becoming synonymous with amputees. In 1972 he directed himself in One-Armed Boxer, which combined his most iconic roles at Shaw Brothers, the One-Armed Swordsman with The Chinese Boxer, another early stab at a ‘proper’ kung fu/martial arts film and his last movie for the Shaw studio.
After his attempt to capitalise on Bruce Lee’s fame with Australian director Brian Trenchard-Smith’s The Man From Hong Kong (1975) failed to materialise in a career in the West, Wang Yu returned with gusto to the roles for which he was best known. The One Armed Swordsmen starred both Wang Yu and Chiang, here a mystery one-armed swordsman is guilty of murder in a town where several have turned up. (What are the chances, eh?). One-Armed Boxer II, better known as Master Of The Flying Guillotine, is a rare example of a sequel that outshines the original. As well being excessing on the original in every way, it also allowed us to see how this character might age. Distanced from his adolescence, his character still puts others before himself; ushering off his pupils from harm where in other martial art films they would be little more than cannon fodder. Intriguingly the Master himself, like Zatoichi, is blind.
He even found time to appear in One Armed Against Nine Killers, directed by another ex-Shaw Brothers employee Hsu Tseng-Hung, who worked with Wang Yu on earliest successes at Shaw, Temple Of The Red Lotus, The Twin Swords and The Sword And The Lute. Versions that surface misleadingly add ‘Swordsman’ to the title, even though his left arm has been amputated and he never actually uses a sword. Later that decade Chang and Ni took the disability angle just about as far as it could go (and then way beyond political correctness) with Crippled Avengers, featuring four disabled fighters seeking revenge.
The influence of One-Armed Swordsman extended beyond Hong Kong too, as witnessed by the 1969 Korean film Armless Swordsman, directed by Lim Won-Sick, which takes the pretext of losing an arm to the highest extreme with a protagonist with no arms and a very different way of fighting: holding the sword in his mouth.
The mid-90s saw radical overhauls of the character from filmmakers Daniel Lee and Tsui Hark on What Price Survival? (aka One Armed Swordsman ’94) and The Blade respectively. Both were grittier takes on the original, with Lee updating the story to modern times to lacklustre effect, despite the presence of David Chiang. Hark brought the grainy realism that had been part of his revisionist take on wuxia since The Butterfly Murders to a period piece with style but imbued it with far more of the revenge aspects that came later in kung fu filmmaking.
Far more satisfying was Ringo Lam’s Full Contact (1992), a take on another film originally released in 1967, John Boorman’s Point Blank. Lam intermingled elements from Swordsman, such as having Chow Yun-fat’s lead character have to relearn how to shoot with his other hand after it has been damaged (but in this case not severed). Directed in a dazzlingly imaginative style he represents the classic wuxia and martial arts trope of equally gifted opponents in a modern setting not with fists or swords clashing, but with bullets.
Nearly half a century on, director Peter Chan’s thoughtful love letter to the original returns to a core aspect so often overlooked in sequels and reworks, that of trying to leave a martial arts life behind to start a family. Here Yen plays Liu Jinxi, seemingly a family man who hides a past with the barbaric 72 Demons, led by his father (Wang Yu on scene-stealing form).
The result of a chat between Chan and star Donnie Yen over their love of the movie, Dragon (aka Wu Xia) works on both levels, capturing both the originals emotive heart and the breathtaking action sequences. Chan freely admits it didn’t occur to him to invite the original One-Armed Swordsman to star until well into the production, though it ended up giving Wang Yu the opportunity to give one of the best performances of his career. The decision to reference the dismemberment was also reported to have come late into shooting the film.
Liu cuts his arm off, surrounded by his father men. Much like the fate of Lynch’s one-armed man Mike, this is a literal and symbolic severance with his past life and misdoings. It tells us it can be done, but not without a price.
One-Armed Swordsman screens at the BFI Southbank in July as part of the Swordsmen, Gangsters and Ghosts strand. A Century Of Chinese Cinema continues at the BFI until mid-October.
 Glaessner, Verina. Kung Fu: Cinema of Vengeance. UK: Lorrimer, 1974.
Kato, M. T., From Kung Fu to Hip Hop: Globalization, Revolution, and Popular Culture. USA: State University of New York Press, 2007.
Ed. Teo, Stephen; Tsang Hin-koon. The Making of Martial Arts Films: As Told by Filmmakers and Stars. Exhibition Publication. HK: Hong Kong Film Archive, 1999.