Fang Kang is going to grow up without his father after he dies in battle, but luckily a sifu named Qi (or Chi) takes him under his wing and teaches him martial arts. His classmates don’t like Fang Kang, and they fight with him and eventually cut off one of his arms in battle. He meets a woman named Xiaoman who wants him to be a farmer, but Fang is pulled back into battle after a rival martial arts master attempts to assassinate Qi with a new sword skill – locking the opponent’s sword so they can quickly be dispatched.
AKA: Du bei dao
Director: Chang Cheh
Actors: Jimmy Wang Yu, Chiao Chiao, Huang Chung-Hsin
Genre: Martial arts/Wuxia
Release date: 1967 (original) / 2018 (Blu-ray)
Note: images not taken from Blu-ray release.
One-Armed Swordsman Film Review
In 1967, the Shaw Brothers released one of the most important wuxia films in Hong Kong cinema. One-Armed Swordsman found its place in history for a number of reasons – a beautiful setting, great authentic historical costumes, and rich cultural themes – but its most impressive and long-lasting element is obviously its martial arts direction, a marvel of moviemaking that, thanks to Chang Cheh, the choreographers, and the athleticism of film star Jimmy Wang Yu, has inspired a number of wuxia films throughout the years.
This classic film follows Fang Keng (Wang Yu), an orphanged boy studying under the tutelage of Qi. He quickly loses an arm in a fight against three of Qi’s apprentices, surprised by a dishonorable attack from Qi’s daughter Pei (Angela Pan). From here, Fang decides that a leisurely life of farming will have to be his new work because he can’t fight with only one arm, but his new mistress Xiaoman (Chiao Chiao) gives him instructions on left-handed auxiliary swordfighting. From there, a classic tale of retribution, honor, and determination is born.
One-Armed Swordsman‘s plot works so well because it’s inspiring in a way that few martial arts films ever achieve. Wang Yu develops a lot of pathos in his character, and throughout the film Fang is tested in a variety of ways: his father is killed, he’s orphaned, he’s not well-liked at Qi’s house, and eventually he’s forced to relearn all of the training he originally mastered due to his missing appendage. The film is about a test of fortitude, but Cheh’s direction never gives the audience a sinking feeling that the story is an exploitative look at a handicap. Instead, it’s an uplifting message of strength; despite the elements and the obstacles, Fang can do what he sets out to achieve, and so can the viewer.
It also helps that the film is filled with nefarious evildoers, the rival martial arts school effectively painting a picture of how good triumphs over bad. While One-Armed Swordsman never really develops any middle ground between the two polar spectrums, Pei does serve as the film’s lone mysterious character. She’s not quite evil, but she does cut off Fang’s arm in an underhanded way; interestingly, she doesn’t become a villain but a part of a love triangle. While she’s particularly underdeveloped in terms of motivation, she does become a unique antagonist here.
As stated before, the fight scenes are truly the shining moments of this 116 minute caper, and they’re well-placed within the film to break up some of the more dialogue-heavy moments. Wang Yu’s choreography is fantastic and the scenes are often surprisingly complex; it also helps that the environment plays a pretty large role in the fight’s ambience, like the quiet snow scenes when Fang loses his arm. Those fans of wuxia concerned about the film’s age need not worry – this is action-packed and features enough over-the-top violence to carry the viewer through more melancholy moments.
One-Armed Swordsman is a great work of art with themes that have a surprising amount of heart. While the ending will surprise no one, seeing Fang get his comeuppance and eventually overcome his anger at the wrongdoings perpetrated on him adds a lot of emotional depth. For those looking for some of the progenitors of samurai and martial arts cinema, one should not overlook this classic – and certainly check it out before watching the sequels Return of the One-Armed Swordsman or The New One-Armed Swordsman.
There’s quite a bit of violence in this film from 1967, particularly a lot of arms being cut off (obviously). The blood is bright red Eastmancolor and it’s splashed liberally throughout; there are a lot of dagger slashings and stabbings. Overall, though, the gore takes a back seat to great martial arts action.
- One-armed films became a thing for Jimmy Wang Yu, who also did One-Armed Boxer.
- Voted the 15th-best Chinese language film.
- 88 Asia #15
- Both Chinese with English Subtitles and English Soundtracks
- Audio Commentary by Bey Logan
- interview with Hong Kong Cinema expert, David West
- Reverse Sleeve featuring Original Hong Kong Poster Art
- Region Code: B
- Picture Format: HD 1080p 2.35:1
- Audio Format: LPCM Stereo 2.0
- Language: Chinese with English Subtitles & English Dub
- Certification: 15
- Running Time: 111 Mins Approx
One-Armed Swordsman Blu-ray Review
One-Armed Swordsman gets its first UK Blu-ray release via 88 Films with a nice 1080p transfer of the movie in 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film looks quite good with the Eastmancolor vibrancy popping out of the screen and a minimal grain presence that is somewhat more noticeable in dark scenes. Some close-up shots are a bit blurry and soft but otherwise the movie features a good look with very little film damage – and quite consistent with the other 88 Asia film I have reviewed, The Enchanting Ghost.
88 Films gives viewers two options for audio, both in LPCM stereo format. There’s an English dub track with no corresponding English subtitles, or the original Chinese audio with English subtitles. I greatly recommend the Chinese version; the soundtrack is absolutely bombastic on this track, and the dialogue is much more pronounced. The English audio is very quiet, especially the music, and the dialogue is somewhat distant. It’s also a bit distracting to listen to the English dub with the subtitles, because some of the dialogue changes quite a bit on translation.
88 Films has assembled two new features for this release. There’s an audio commentary featuring Bey Logan, who expounds upon the film and offers some very interesting insight. There’s also a 17-minute interview with David West, a Hong Kong cinema expert, who gives even more information on the behind-the-scenes production of the film.
Also included in this package is a slipcover and then two other alternative cover artworks underneath. The package also comes with a liner essay from Calum Waddell about the lasting legacy of One-Armed Swordsman. This is an excellent package for wuxia fans and those who have been yearning to own One-Armed Swordsman on Blu-ray – recommended!