When brave student Fang Cheng (Ku Feng) dies saving the life of master swordsman Qi Ru Feng (Tien Feng), the latter swears to raise his son. Years later Fang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu) grows into a handsomely stoic young man determined to excel at kung fu. Although Master Qi’s spoiled, sword-wielding daughter Pei-Er (Pang Ying-Tzu) has been in love with him for years, Kang rebuffs her amorous advances. Taunted for being poor, he decides to leave the school but is ambushed in the snow by fellow students led by a spiteful Pei-Er. In the ensuing scuffle, she cuts off Kang’s right arm.
Kang stumbles into the care of kindly peasant girl Xiao Man (Chiao Chiao) who nurses him back to health and passes on her late father’s left-handed kung fu manual. Armed with this, Kang trains rigorously till his left arm is superhumanly strong and develops a unique sword fighting style using his late father’s broken blade. Which proves handy given notorious brigand Long-Armed Devil (Yeung Chi-Hing) - whose face is kept hidden building an aura of mystery - and his ally Smiling Tiger Cheng Tian Shou (Tang Ti) are killing off each of Master Qi’s disciples. The pair arm their disciples with a fiendish “sword lock” device that can disable any sword, save of course for Kang’s broken blade…
It is not often a single film changes an entire industry overnight, but that is pretty much what One-Armed Swordsman did for Hong Kong cinema. Shaw Brothers had made groundbreaking and popular martial arts movies before, notably King Hu’s trailblazing Come Drink With Me (1966), but like the Huangmei Opera and musical dramas that were likewise the studio’s stock in trade these centred around heroic swordswomen. Women dominated Chinese cinema throughout the immediate post-war era, something that still seems astonishing given Hollywood actresses still struggle to land decent parts. One-Armed Swordsman popularised the “yanggang” or “masculine male” style of filmmaking in Hong Kong cinema, something pioneering director Chang Cheh deliberately set out to do while taking the heroic swordswoman archetype down a peg or two.
Take Chang’s depiction of Pei-Er. In any other movie release from Shaw’s that year, such a fiery, feisty female would have been the heroine. Here, Chang depicts Pei-Er as malicious, naïve, childish and - arguably the ultimate insult - not even that hot at kung fu. By contrast Xiao Man embodies Chang’s ideal woman: caring, nurturing and largely passive, even though she attempts to dissuade Kang from taking up the sword. It’s not quite “bro’s before ho’s” but when Kang patiently explains her the virtues of brotherhood you know exactly whose side Chang Cheh is on. Thankfully Pang Ying-Tzu (a musical star who became a fixture of martial arts films after finding stardom here) and Chiao Chiao (who went on to play a malicious, naïve, childish woman who was very, very good at kung fu in Shaw’s excellent Heads For Sale (1969) rise above their thin-seeming roles with finely etched characterizations. Chang Cheh’s steadfastly macho melodrama can seem comical to modern eyes, but the performances here are beautifully nuanced overall and the film assembled with greater care and artistry compared to his later zoom-happy efforts. Though stylised and visceral, the action is stately instead of frenetic recalling the Japanese chanbara (samurai) movies Cheh so admired. He pads the film somewhat with several drawn out confrontations between Master Qi’s disciples and Long-Armed Devil. Each falls for the same “sword lock” trick, but Chang labours the point. Nevertheless the finale is suitably stirring and suspenseful.
At its heart rests a tour de force from Jimmy Wang Yu who is actually deeply moving as the downtrodden hero, even though as Master Qi’s wife (Chen Yan-Yan) observes tragedy may have been averted had Kang not been so self-righteous (tellingly, she is quickly told to hush up). One-Armed Swordsman was of course, famously the making of Jimmy Wang Yu. Born in 1943 to a wealthy family, the former water polo star starred in Shaw’s first significant martial arts epic Temple of the Red Lotus (1964) before becoming the genre’s first superstar. Wang Yu returned in, what else, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1967) but despite headlining Shaw classics like The Assassin (1967) and Golden Swallow (1968) his relationship was always a fractious one. He became the first - and as far as this writer is aware, only - actor to break his contract with Shaw Brothers and was subsequently blacklisted from working in Hong Kong.
A notoriously cantankerous and controversial figure (you could fill a book with his many alleged misdemeanours), Wang Yu’s attempts at finding international stardom with the Golden Harvest co-productions: The Man from Hong Kong (1975) and Queen’s Ransom (1976) met with only modest success and he was eventually eclipsed by stars with far greater martial arts skills. Nevertheless he remains a significant figure in kung fu cinema, not least for One-Armed Swordsman which was recently ranked fifteenth in the one hundred greatest Chinese films of all time.