Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh shifted Hong Kong cinema from feminine to masculine themes with his trailblazing One-Armed Swordsman (1967) and made Jimmy Wang Yu a superstar. One sequel and several hit movies later, Jimmy quit Shaw Brothers to join rival studio Golden Harvest. But nobody was irreplaceable at Shaw Brothers, not even the studio’s biggest martial arts star. Chang Cheh dutifully made New One Armed Swordsman which, despite its title, was a vehicle for not one, but two of his new protégés – both of whom went on to become screen icons.
Arrogant sword hero Lei Li (David Chiang), master of the fearsome two-sword technique, charges across the screen, slashing enemies hither and thon, to the cool sitar-driven jazz-rock soundtrack. Laughing goon Lung Er Zi (the ever-dastardly Ku Feng) aims to usurp his position as number one fighter in the Martial World. To that end Lung frames Lei for armed robbery, joins a posse that hunts him down then humiliates the hero in an awesome fight showcasing his unbeatable mastery of the three-sectioned staff. Severing his own sword arm, swiftly impaled against a tree, a chastened Lei vows he will never fight again.
Years later - the passage of time illustrated by flesh decaying off the severed arm into bare bone! - Lei Li has become a brooding, downtrodden servant at a country inn, taunted by bullies because of his handicap. Only nice blacksmith’s daughter Ba Jaio (Li Ching) shows him any kindness. But even she doesn’t know our lone-limbed hero still harbours supernatural skills. He can clear a whole table with a wave of his hand and punch right through solid stone. One day, dashing swordsman Fung (Ti Lung), new champion of the twin swords technique, rides into town investigating a string of robberies. The trail leads to Tiger Mansion and a clan of pelt-clad miscreants whose Chief Chan Chun Nam (Chan Sing) is merely the front-man for our old friend, Lung Er Zi. Now residing, Bond villain-style inside his underground lair, Lung masquerades as a righteous philanthropist whilst pocketing profits from all those robberies on the side. When Tiger clan thugs try to abduct Ba Jaio as a sex slave, Fung heroically intervenes but can’t help noticing Lei hides phenomenal kung fu skills behind his mild-mannered facade. Thus infatuated, Fung tries to pursuade Lei to join his fight against the Tiger clan.
Long before the term “bromance” entered the modern lexicon, Chang Cheh was devoted to spinning yarns about honour, brotherhood and manly male bonding. Particularly in his so-called “blood brothers” cycle, a string of films beginning with Vengeance! (1970) and continuing with The Water Margin (1972), All Men Are Brothers (1973) and, er, Blood Brothers (1973) among many more, pairing kung fu icons Ti Lung and David Chiang. Chiang was born into an acting dynasty. Both his parents and siblings, notably younger brother Derek Yee, were movie stars in their own right. It was Chiang however, alongside Ti Lung, who came to exemplify the Shaw Brothers style of martial arts epic in hit after hit, including their co-production with Hammer Films Seven Brothers Meet Dracula (1974) a.k.a. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. Were it not for the duff plotting of the latter, Chiang’s fluent English and undeniable charisma might have made him an international star. As it stood, Chiang made his directorial debut at Shaw Brothers with A Mad World of Fools (1974) which took his career in the comedic direction he ploughed throughout the next few years, between occasional martial arts roles.
In later films Chang Cheh’s chest-beating machismo grew downright camp, but in New One Armed Swordsman, as indeed the “blood brothers” cycle as a whole, his chivalric themes exude boys-own thrills. His themes had a particularly profound effect on his young assistant director, none other than John Woo who of course gave the iconic Ti Lung his comeback role in A Better Tomorrow (1986) and paid explicit tribute to his mentor by reworking Blood Brothers into the superb Bullet in the Head (1990), which to confuse matters further was itself remade under the original title. There are unmistakeable echoes of the Chiang/Lung relationship in the steadfast bond between blood-splattered heroes in The Killer (1989).
Interestingly with Chang Cheh films, the homoerotic bond between heroes outranks family ties and romantic relationships. Chang draws Ba Jaio as his ideal woman: dutiful, nurturing and meek. Unlike the women featured in just about every other martial arts movie made at Shaw Brothers, she never takes up the sword and the film repeatedly hints that, though women are well meaning, men understand each other’s feelings better. Lei Li and Fung even make plans to settle down together and start a farm, hastily adding the former will marry Ba Jaio lest anyone think they are gay. New One Armed Swordsman suffers the usual Chang Cheh movie drawbacks, with characters tending to pontificate, but the plot is engrossing and well paced and the action choreographed by future genius director Lau Kar Leung is outstanding. Slow-motion scenes set to Chen Yung Yu’s prog rock score (that steals cues from John Barry and Akira Ifukube) lends the action a surreal flavour, but the finale is pure visceral excitement. A vengeful Lei Li charges across a spectacular bridge - constructed especially for this movie though re-used throughout countless subsequent Shaw epics - as he racks up a genocidal body count. David Chiang returned as Lei Li, co-directing and starring alongside the original lone-limbed hero Jimmy Wang Yu in the independent production One Armed Swordsmen (1976).