Chang Cheh’s The One-armed Swordsman (a Shaw Brothers Studio production) is an immaculate genre exercise that miraculously, and effortlessly manages to transcend it’s genre trappings without even wanting to. This it achieves not by heaping the film with ill-advised gravitas or by being excessively verbose, for the film’s busy narrative moves along fluidly at a brisk pace and has more than it’s fair share of brilliantly choreographed sword-fighting sequences. It achieves this in the most solidly reliable fashion by creating real human characters as opposed to genre stereotypes, a central character who we don’t just root for, but whose weaknesses and vulnerabilities we can identify with.
Centered around a rivalry between the Golden Sword School and a group of vicious bandits headed by the colorfully named Long-Armed Assassin and Smiling Tiger, the movie begins with an attack on the master of the school, Qi Rufeng, by these thugs, resulting in a servant Fang Cheng sacrificing his life to save his master’s. The servant’s son, the titular (anti)-hero Fang Gang (Wang Yu) then grows up under Qi Rufeng’s tutelage and becomes an expert swordsman, by some distance the best at the school. Jealousy, oneupmanship and cruelty on part of some of the other students, including the master’s own petulant daughter unfortunately leaves him short of an arm, and he’s barely able to survive this only because of a kindhearted peasant girl. The film spends most of it’s time then delineating the hero’s conflict between his sense of duty and honor towards an institution which raised him but which was also indirectly responsible for the misfortune that befell him, and the peasant girl, who offers a life of calmness, serenity and love completely disparate from the one he’s been trained and conditioned to lead.
A martial arts film simply cannot work without an adversary that offers the perfect mix of unmitigated cruelty, diabolical schemes and dangerous fighting techniques. The main villains in the movie offer all of the above, and then some. Crucial to this is a sly fighting technique that involves a unique-looking sword, complete with a lock custom-made to counter the Golden Sword Technique of Qi Rufeng’s school. The idea is to lure the opponent into an over-aggressive move with the sword, trap it using the lock and then mercilessly cut open his belly using a short knife in the other hand. Even if moderate by current standards, the graphic violence, complete with blood and severed limbs must have been a few notches higher than the conventions of the time. Factor in the hero’s disability, due to which he must learn to wield a smaller sword (and boy, does he!) but which, by a happy coincidence, turns out to be the best strategy to counter the “locking” sword and we have what are undoubtedly some of the most compelling fighting sequences in the history of wuxia films.
The film however derives most of it’s power and enduring quality from the tragic predicament and conflict of the main character, solidly conveyed by Wang Yu’s understated performance. The peasant girl (played by Chiao Chiao) often mentions with skepticism of the hollowness of the “honor” that is of paramount importance to the martial artist and has first hand experience of it’s inevitably tragic consequences. The hero agrees, but simply cannot feel complete as a peasant, without a sword in hand. And yet as we see more fine, strong men have their bellies get cut open for no reason than the protection of “honor”, all leading up to a blood-curdling finale, we cannot help but see true merit in the peasant girl’s thinking. Rather than celebrate the glory of the hero’s victory, the director chooses to ruefully focus on the carnage that has resulted, and very fittingly has his hero choose a defiantly unheroic path at the end. Chang Cheh gives us a rousing martial arts film, one of the very best, with all of it’s usual trappings, yet without a hint of the phony heroism. Essential viewing.