The One-Armed Swordsman and Its Interesting Complications

As one of the most important wuxia ever made, I came to The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) for Shaw Brothers production quality and one-armed fighting but that’s not what made me fall in love with this film. The One-Armed Swordsman is also an exceptionally romantic four-way love “triangle.” 

One of the earlier films by director Chang Cheh, the film widely considered to be one of the catalysts to the new wuxia style that would dominate the Hong Kong Golden Age, starts with a hero who possesses the usual two arms, Fang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu). The star disciple of his master Qi Ru Feng (Tien Feng), the same master his servant father died to protect, is heir apparent to the ​​Golden Sword school when he runs away after hearing of the other students’ distaste for him. The other students interrupt his escape and the master’s daughter, Pei Er (Angela Pan), cheaply cuts off his arm in what was supposed to be a hand-to-hand fight. The sequence of him stumbling off with one arm in the snow accompanied by indeterminate jazz music is one of the best in the film—ending with a series of cleverly edited POV shots before he falls into the boat of a poor village woman. With its little shaky cam and chaotic movements, combined with the harsh but elegant weather, Chang makes it the most stylized scene and thus the most unforgettable.

After mastering the art of one-armed combat, Fang then returns to his former master’s house when trouble brews in the form of Smiling Tiger Cheng Tian Shou (Tang Ti) and his ominous and older brother Long Armed Devil (Yeung Chi-hing). The brothers have concocted a new weapon capable of trapping the exact size sword that Qi and all of his disciples use in a triangle shape cutout/divot on the device, rendering their opponent defenseless. Only Fang and his damaged halved sword passed down from his father can save the Golden Sword school.

That’s one way to describe the film, one that misses out on its philosophical and romantic complexity. Any reader can probably guess two of the three romances that Fang will spend the bulk of the film negotiating his loyalties between: the only two women with speaking roles in the film, arm-cutter Pei-Er and the poor former Xiao Man (Lisa Chiao Chiao). Strictly speaking, he is romantically loyal to only Xiao, who nursed him to health and gifted him a martial arts book on one-armed fighting. But he saves Pei-Er, who has longed for him since they were children, from Smiling Tiger’s men after a long bout of deliberation. He claims her feelings were never reciprocated…but the camera lingers on his seriousness and unhappiness a bit too long for that to be fully believed. Is he telling the truth? Does he want to like her but can’t because the same man raised them both, making her something of a sister? Or is he lying to his childhood crush out of loyalty to Xiao Man, who he only recently met? 

He also—as the genre requires—loves his master, the man who raised him and serves as a mutually paternal figure with his own dead father. The complexity of the situation comes not from the number of loyalties that Fang must meet but from the conflicting interests of his “loves.” Xiao, his current romantic partner and the woman he lives with, doesn’t want him to be a swordsman anymore. If it weren’t for martial arts, she reasons, his dad would still be alive and he would still have both arms. She also recounts a piece of marriage advice from her mother: prefer farmers to swordsmen since the latter have a love so intense that they will die for their masters. Moreover, when he rescues Pei-Er, he risks his relationship with Xiao, who has reason to be jealous. The alternative course of action, not rescuing her, would break the heart of his master and render him too heartbroken ever to fight again. In The One-Armed Swordsman, to be loyal to one loved one is to be disloyal to another.

Cutting deeper than objects of love, the same predicament points to an even deeper wound: the cold and horribly unromantic truth about “honorable” martial artists or swordsmen in the genre. Chang begs reexamination of the very mold of the archetypal hero: at what point does spiritual detachment from the world make one no longer part of this world and no longer capable of living human lives? The One-Armed Swordsman is too optimistic to answer these contradictions—but I have a feeling the sequels will put an end to the marital happiness given to Fang, and thus further deromanticizing his story. 

In the final fight, Chang and cinematographers Yuen Chang-sam and Kuang Han-lu resort to mostly handheld camera work. The style sticks out, in part, because handheld shots weren’t all that common in 1960s Hong Kong cinema (or the rest of the world, for that matter…) but also because of how well the style works with the four-way predicament of love. It’s the last act of swordsmanship he ever hopes to perform, intending to retire to the countryside as a farmer after the fight. One way or another, he will no longer be the “swordsman” of the title upon the fight’s conclusion. (Of course, we know there are two sequels now, but the economy of the sequel should not alter our perception of the first film.)

The action is just okay, at least when viewed in retrospect of the Shaw Brothers’ corporate record. The bulky lock devices carried by Smiling Tiger and his men don’t look all that easy to swing and perhaps limit the mobility of the performers. I could be wrong about that, but it certainly looks the case: in most fight scenes, the creative bodily movement is usually one-sided. And the fights get a bit repetitive with the fancy locks (which look sort of like very big, weird wrenches): they swing a few times and a clacking noise informs us that the sword has been locked (we never get a close-up to see this in action), and then they go for the knife kill. I’m probably not being fair and I’m sure this was better-received action at the time, but King Hu’s Come Drink with Me came out the year before (1966) and his Dragon Inn the very same year—both of which have ungodly and completely revolutionary action choreography. This is not that.

Still, it’s a great chapter in the history of the wuxia. 

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