Return Of The One-Armed Swordsman (Du bei dao Wang)
Hong Kong (1969) Dir. Chang Cheh
Encouraged no doubt by the enormous box office success of 1967’s classic The One-Armed Swordsman, the Shaw Brothers and director Chang Cheh not unsurprisingly went into sequel mode to see if lightning would strike twice. Spoiler – of course it would!
Jimmy Wang Yu returns as the titular hero Fang Gang, enjoying a peaceful rural life with his wife Xiao Man (Lisa Chiao Chiao). This is interrupted by the Black (Wu Ma) and White (Fong Yau) Swordsmen with an invitation to a Sword King tournament, held by the Eight Kings, feared warriors with their own unique fighting styles.
Fang rejects the invite but later learns that all clan heads have received one but it is a trap, with fighters killed on arrival. Refusing to participate also results in death whilst the only way to earn exclusion is for all pupils to each cut an arm off. With many clan leaders captured or killed, one group hunt Fang down and beg him to help them out.
As we have seen with many sequels the maxim seems to be “bigger is better” and Chang Cheh certainly adopted this with gusto for this film. The story may still be rather simple and Fang remains a jaded and philosophically conflicted protagonist but the action has been turned up to eleven! Containing more fights than its predecessor, each clash is resplendent with grandiose presentations and ambitious concepts.
This also means a higher body count as a result of many of the fights being multi-man affairs. It would seem every extra on the Shaw Brothers lot was drafted in for this film – including future choreography legend Yuen Woo-ping – or perhaps many worked double duty as a masked fighter, but rarely is the screen bereft of bodies taking up the whole shot, both on and away from the battlefield.
Curiously many of the Eight Kings are only afforded brief appearances, showing up as a roadblock on the journey to vengeance for Fang. They get a brief introduction at the start whilst bullying the small schools or scoring victories in the faux tourney, only to disappear and resurface later for their big fight with Fang – the most famous face being resident Shaw Brothers villain Tien Feng.
Initially Fang was keen to uphold his promise to Xiao Man not to fight again but when one of the clan pupils Shan Xiong (Chan Sing) kidnaps her to blackmail Fang into helping them, it backfires big time when the Ape-Arm King (Lau Kar-leung) arrives on the scene with his men and slaughters everyone in sight. Fang steps in and deals with Ape-Arm King in a decisive fashion, agreeing to lead the pupils after Xiao Man vouches for them.
The next villain to make an impact is the lone female of the group, Thousand Hands King (shouldn’t that be queen?) Hua Niangzi (Lin Chia). Using her feminine charms she infiltrates fang’s group claiming to be the helpless victim of bandits then seduces the younger men one by one before offing them.
In an odd bit of scripting, Fang reveals that he knew who Hua was but was waiting for her to strike before confronting her – in other word he was happy for two of his men to die before stepping in! Charming!
A pattern some forms – punch-up, quiet moment, punch up – with each fight becoming more outrageous than the previous one. This is where Cheh starts to stretch the film’s credibility, depending on how goofy you like your wire-fu. One fight set in a bamboo field sees Fang spinning in the air like a tornado whilst slicing up anyone in front of him (surely having on arm would create an imbalance?) whilst another sees Fang and his opponents bouncing up and down as if they were on trampolines (which they presumably were).
If that wasn’t enough, Fang’s left arm is apparently so strong he not only can defeat huge armies along but can also lift heavy steel gates with ease! Perhaps it is because we are more accepting of the realism Bruce Lee and successors brought to the genre but gimmickry like this is likely to incur derision than inspire awe, although one cannot impugn the athleticism of the performers.
What made the first film so interesting was how Fang was a reluctant hero and that killing baddies did little to lift his mood. Nothing has really changed but while Fang has settled into his arable lifestyle, he still practices his swordplay every day. It is ironic that Fang gave up the sword for her yet she is the one that encourages him to take up the pupil’s request.
Later after Fang has defeated most of the Eight Kings, he is awarded a gold medal by the villagers as a token of the gratitude. Yet, Fang can’t even receive this with a smile as he laments the many deaths of innocent people which forced him to prove his sword skills in the first place.
Surprisingly deep stuff for a period when wu xia film plots were rather flimsy. This questioning of who the real villains are and whether being a hero is truly deserving of the reverence it receives makes Fang come across as a gloomy protagonist yet also a human one; yet this is negated one Fang begins to fight with God like flawlessness.
However this affords Cheh to up his directing game and try different ideas in presenting these fights where rapid and multiple movements are key to the choreography. Elsewhere Cheh gets a bit arty in soppy soft focus dream sequences involving Xiao Man, connected to the bit of news she never gets to share with Fang in a running gag.
Whether Return Of The One-Armed Swordsman is better than the original is a moot point as sequels during this period were more about box office receipts and not topping the previous effort. For martial arts fans this will be another enjoyable slice of movie history.