BY STEWART SMITH
“The One-Armed Swordsman” feels like an attempt at something different.
All of the films I’ve watched for this series, and indeed most of the kung fu movies I’ve watched in general, are pretty light on plot and heavy on action. The plot is mostly a bare backbone upon which to hang numerous fight scenes. The 1967 film “The One-Armed Swordsman” is certainly not lacking in fight scenes, if anything it has some of the more violent action beats from the era. But it attempts to balance that action with a strong focus on the blossoming relationship between protagonist Fang Kang (“Jimmy” Wang Yu, a prolific actor who continuously made headlines for years in his private life) and Xiaoman (Chiao Chiao), the woman who saves his life.
As a young boy, Fang Kang watches as his father loses his life defending The Golden Sword school from bandits. Although he was the son of a lowly servant, Fang is accepted by the school’s master, Qi Ru Feng (Tien Feng) as a student and taught as an equal.
Before long, Fang’s lowly origins and superior skills cause strife among his fellow students, including Qi’s daughter, Pei-er (Yin Tze Pan), who strikes out at Fang, severing his arm in a fit of anger after losing a fight to him. Fang’s self-imposed exile doesn’t last long, though, once he learns of Long-Armed Devil’s (Chih-Ching Yeng) plot to kill his former master and brothers at the school and begins teaching himself the art of one-handed fighting.
While I enjoyed this overall, it’s difficult to call it anything other than a mixed bag. I admire the attempt to mix a romance with an action film, but the writing is just too thin and the acting too poor for it to really register on any sort of significant emotional level. It works in the broad strokes and I suppose that’s all you can really ask for in a film like this, but it’s still rather insubstantial given how much time is devoted to it.
That said, once things do get down to brass tacks and the swords come out in full force it manages to distinguish itself nicely. Every film I’ve watched so far in the series has featured weapons, it’s always been mixed in with fisticuffs. This was nothing but armaments from start to finish, that alone providing a unique flavor. But director Cheh Cheng also made some interesting stylistic choices as well, going for a slightly shakier style of filming and a more rough-and-tumble style of fight choreography. Classic kung fu clicks can often look like actors doing an elaborate dance, but that’s quite the opposite here with several fights looking like straight up brawls.
I mentioned earlier that “The One-Armed Swordsman” featured some noticeably more violent action than a lot of other films of the era. While I’m sure this had a shocking effect on audiences back then, it’s still largely chuckle-worthy now as the limbs and blood couldn’t possibly look any more fake.
I also have to give praise once again for the “Shaw Bros. aesthetic.” There’s something wonderful about set design seen here and in the countless other films made on the massive studio back lot. It’s quite obviously stage-bound, but the lush designs of these sets are truly special.
I’m not sure I’d qualify this one as a classic the way that some do (and the way that many of the previous films in this series genuinely are), but it manages to make a mark in a worthwhile way. It’s worth a watch if you want to catch as many Shaw Bros. films as possible.
Next week, I’ll begin drawing this series to a close with a review of “Ten Tigers of Kwangtung.” Then, to wrap it up, I’ll bookend things with a look at Jet Li’s “Fist of Legend,” a remake of the Bruce Lee movie that I began the series with, “Fist of Fury.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.