One-Armed Swordsman (Du bei dao)
Hong Kong (1967) Dir. Chang Cheh
The martial arts film genre has featured many iconic heroes but they have largely been based on the lives of real people, from Wong Fei-hung and Fong Sai-yuk to Huo Yuanjia and Yip Man. In 1967 this changed with the creation of a very popular screen hero which went on to spawn sequels, a crossover with Japanese legend Zatoichi and influence numerous other films as well as the obligatory rip offs.
The One-Armed Swordsman also made a star out of its leading man Jimmy Wang Yu, whilst the story itself is a minor paradigm shifter in terms of the hero not being a martial artist hell bent on revenge or looking to change the world. Amidst the bloodshed and unruly happenings there is a romantic aspect which may conflict with the inherent testosterone of the genre yet creates some interesting light against the clichéd shade.
When a lowly servant Fang Cheng (Guk Fung) of the Golden Sword School is killed defending it against men from a rival school, he asks with his dying breath that his master Qi Ru-Feng (Tien Feng) takes on his son Fang Gang as a pupil. Years later and Fang Gang (Wang Yu) is now a skilled martial artists but he still conducts himself with the humility of a servant like his father, which upsets Qi’s spoiled daughter Pei-Er (Pan Yin-Tze), who fancies Gang.
Along with two other pupils Pei-Er bullies Gang, forcing him to leave the school. The trio follow Gang and challenge him to a fight, during which Pei-Er strikes a fatal blow – cutting off Gang’s right arm! Gang flees, fortunately falling into the path of country girl Xiao Man (Lisa Chiao Chiao), who nurses Gang back to health and they live together on her humble farm. Gang learn to fight with one arm for defence purposes only until trouble arrives in town.
Possibly the earliest indicator in this film that Fang Gang wasn’t going to be your typical hero is his rather effete looks, which even an unconvincing stubble can’t hide, thus he doesn’t physically exude any suggestion that he can kick your butt. Of course this is why the character and the story works so well and by flying in the face of the archetypal wu xia revenge story Cheng Cheh has created a new archetype of his own.
There is also a deeper side to the story with its message of forgiveness and loyalty to create a more emotional and logical foundation for the slicing and dicing which occurs on a regular basis. Fang Gang is a unique character within the wu xia canon and not just because of his appendage deficit but because of his strong moral compass, yet when he needs to he can man up in a spectacular way.
Later the story wanders into familiar territory when arrogant fighters from another school try to exert themselves on the weak and receive a whooping for their troubles. Their master then forms an alliance with a dangerous and evil Kung Fu master who has a grievance with the Golden Sword, forcing Gang to defend his alma mater.
Remember this is a genre movie so some conventions need to be adhered to as so to not scare away the hardcore audiences with any extreme deviation from the norm; then again the great films are the ones which bring something different and fresh to the party, creating one of the great anomalies of cinema! But can viewing this film through modern eyes still engender appreciation for the path it made nearly fifty years ago?
Naturally this comes across a little hammy in places, with the usual exaggerated performances from the villains to the risible red paint for blood and carefully stage fights, predating the lightning fast combat of Bruce Lee by some four years. But within the context of the period One-Armed Swordsman was ground breaking, pushing the violence of martial arts further than before and with an anti-hero male lead.
Cheng Cheh also goes against type by having a protagonist not be driven by vengeance or a thirst for blood despite the hardships he encounters. Fang Gang takes a while to adjust to having just one arm yet remains philosophical after he settles into a peaceful routine with Xiao Man and discovers he can fish and perform other task with just his left arm.
However the arrival of two arrogant students of Smiling Tiger Cheng (Tang Ti) trying to woo Xiao Man whom Gang is unable to protect, causes Gang to fall into a depression so Xiao Man gives him a burned copy of a martial arts manual from her late father. Xiao Man’s father died because of martial arts which is why she abhors fighting and fled to the country.
But she also recognises that it would boost Gang’s confidence too and of course by the end of the film this therapeutic training pays off when the powerful sword master Long Armed Devil (Yeung Chi-hing) shows up to settle a score with Qi Ru-Feng. Xiao Man is an interesting love interest in that she is resolute in her beliefs yet supportive to Gang’s cause for the right reasons – after all he is the first handicapped hero in wu xia!
Interestingly Lisa Chiao Chiao as Xiao Man is presented a less glamorous as the stunning Pan Yin-Tze as Pei-Er which is a clumsy and unflattering way of suggesting that Gang is settling for second best when in fact Xiao Man makes for a better dynamic with the pacifist side of Gang’s character. And physically she looks more natural when next to Jimmy Wang Yu, who rocketed to fame in this role.
Apparently the first Hong Kong film to break the one million dollar barrier at the domestic box office One-Armed Swordsman paved the way for wu xia filmmakers to be a bit more daring and original in their ideas. Arguably a little protracted and cheesy by today’s standards, the film’s legendary status remains obvious.