Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Shaw Brothers marathon: The One Armed Swordsman

The One Armed Swordsman (1967, Chang Che)
One knows exactly when it has happened. Any movie aficionado is familiar with that odd feeling which takes over when one has watched a film that manages to overcome its flaws and provide some solid entertainment despite it all. There is no hiding that the film is imperfect. Some of the flaws may be glaring, but what it does well, it does so marvellously. This sentiment fell upon the author while watching this second entry in the Shaw Brothers Marathon, The One Armed Swordsman, from 1967. More than once a sense of exhilaration washed over me like a tidal wave, which thankfully made up for the moments when I could no believe the ridiculousness of what transpired on screen. For this reason, I salute director Chang Che, who pulls off quite the job even though his film is hampered by at times a strange script and really bogus storytelling methods. Enough with the intro, let us get into the juicy details.

Chang Che’s film shares the tale of Fang Kang (Jimmy Wang), the son of a servant who gave up his life to protect his master, Qi Ru Er (Tien Feng), when Kang was only a small boy. In paying respect to the request uttered by the boy’s father in his last breath, Qi Ru takes Kang as a pupil and teaches him the martial arts of his house, along with the other, more well off students, or ‘brothers’ as they are called. Flash forward a good few years and Kang is a young adult, a solid student, but scorned by his brothers for his petty familial background. Qi Ru’s daughter, Pei Er (Angela Pan), takes a liking to Kang, but cannot relinquish her own snobbish ways, and therefore never succeeds in truly seducing Kang. In a fit of fury, she accidentally slices of Kang’s arm one night in the forest as the two confront each other. Kang, bloodied, severely injured and exhausted, is found by the peace loving Xiao Man (Lisa Chiao Chiao) who nurses him back to health. Kang is living a peaceful life until the day he finds out that his former master’s old enemies, Smiling Tiger (Tang Ti) and Long Armed Devil (Yeung Chi-hing), are planning to attack the man on his 55th birthday. Kang is compelled to return to his previous home to help out, but how can he do so with only one arm?

 As stated in the introductory paragraph, my feelings and thoughts towards The One Armed Swordsman can easily be divided into two halves. Luckily, what works well did so sufficiently for the movie to be enjoyable at the end of the day, but by golly does it ever make some silly decisions. While watching these Shaw Brothers films, it has come to the my attention that few, if any, run at over 2 hours long. Many are around the 90 minute range. One of several possible reasons for this rests with the sort of stories the filmmakers have to tell and the requirements of offering elaborate, escapist action set pieces. By the 90 minute mark, everything has been told and the viewer has been assaulted with enough bloody good stunts and sword fights, sometimes literally bloody, which makes them even better. When the movies from this studio start to flirt with the two hour mark, which is the case with the film under currently under review, things can begin to feel needlessly stretched. The individual moments might be alright, perhaps entertaining in their own right, but in the grander scheme of things, especially with regards to story and pacing, they feel superfluous. The One Armed Swordsman is fraught with sword fights. It is loaded with sword fights. It is, abundant in sword fights. Sounds like a beautiful thing upon considering that this is a Shaw Brothers production, does it not? In some respects it is indeed a beautiful, joyous thing, for all the skill and incredible cinematography involved (more on that later). However, about ¾ of the fights develop in exactly the same fashion. Exactly the same. At the risk of spoiling a bit of the film, the antagonists, Long Armed Devil and Smiling Tiger, have developed a special sword, an instrument of combat they baptise the ‘lock sword’ because it is melded in order to have a unique mechanism at the tip of the blade to ‘lock’ an opponent’s blade. When their opposite is no longer in control of their weapon, the villains then extract a knife from their robes and gut the opponent to death. Brilliant technique for a villain. It is an interesting way of using a little clever idea and simple sword making technology in order to add another dimension, another purpose, to a blade. Tiger, Devil and their henchmen then go on to surprise attack Qi Ru’s disciples before launching a final assault on the grandmaster himself on his birthday. The viewer is then shown attack, upon attack, upon attack, which all end the same. It is perfectly alright to show this audacious new battle strategy a couple of times, just so the audience knows what is in store for the finale, but Chang Che gives so many identical fight scenes that it really gets boring after a while. The climax itself is even more frustrating in that Kang comes to rescue just before Long Armed Devil is about to vanquish the few remaining disciples and Qi Ru himself. Almost all of the disciples have needlessly died, falling prey to the same old strategy that no one seems to have figured out properly. Granted, Kang had to do battle with Smiling Tiger on the way to Qi Ru’s home, but there is nonetheless a sense of uncalled silliness to the entire affair. Every time a disciple is killed, a few more then try to avenge them, only to have their swords ‘locked’ as well, and so on and so forth... The One Armed Swordsman knows it has a unique idea about it pertaining to the sword fighting, but it totally abuses it.
There are some more basic storytelling aspects that ring hollow as well. Earlier in the film, Kang, prior to having his arm severed, demonstrates admirable skill as a swordsman. This, of course, is after years of practice under the tutelage of Qi Ru. Shortly after the infamous accident, when attempting to defend his new girlfriend Xiao Man, Kang fails miserably. With only one arm, all the techniques he has learned are proven useless. Because the script demands it, Xiao Man is in possession of a half burned book about martial arts, which she lends to Kang because he literally keeps moping about how useless he has become since losing his arm (another element the film seems determined to hammer into the viewer’s mind: look at how sad and useless Kang is now!). A few weeks later, Kang is the most ruthless and efficient swordsman in the entire land. Oh, really? So he needs years of training under a grandmaster to become as good as he was when he had two arms, but a solo training with half burned book is enough to make a total bad ass in the span of a couple weeks (maybe a few months at most) when he has one arm? I know Shaw Brothers stories are not supposed to be taken too seriously, but there is only so much I can get behind. 
Now that the movie has been sufficiently beaten to a pulp, it might be time to end the review on these positive aspects which have been mysteriously referred to and which made the movie an enjoyable experience despite all the problems analysed in the previous paragraphs.  For one, even though the sword fights grow repetitive after a while, they are really well acted out and filmed. Before becoming tedious, there is a true sense of thrill and danger to the battles. Every character who takes hold of a sword and waves around in attack or in defence looks great doing just that. The eventual final battle between Kang and Long Armed Devil is incredibly well done and features some inventive fighting moments that were a pleasant surprise.
Earlier in the review, I referenced the sublime cinematography. Is it ever gorgeous, and I am absolutely serious when typing those very words.  There are certainly some Shaw Brothers productions that look more handsome than others, but among those this movie fan has watched thus far, The One Armed Swordsman is a cut above the rest. There is dynamic movement to the camera, both during the calmer dialogue sequences and during the frenetic fights. Director Chang Che has a perfect understanding of geography and space within a location, of where characters are situation in relation to one another as well as in relation to objects in the periphery, some of which can be used as weapons themselves. The pans are nothing short of exquisite, and do a tremendous job at conveying the emotions rushing through various scenes. It is true that I have already written about how, in some ways, the film is poor at developing the emotions, but I suppose I am forgiving the movie at this moment just for how the director and his team use the cinematography to explore said emotions. Coupled with the lighting and set designs, both of which are fantastic, there is artistry in the cinematography, which is something I doubt can be so easily proclaimed about a lot of Shaw Brothers movies.
The central couple formed by Kang and Xiao Man is worthy enough to cheer on. Both Jimmy Wang and Lisa Chiao Chiao give solid performances. It is easy to imagine how those two would fall in love and want to live a quiet, happy life together somewhere in the countryside on a farm.
Chang Che’s The One Armed Swordsman is a curious case where it takes some seriously flawed routes, more flawed than the often 'charming flaws' found in 60s and 70s Shaw Brothers movies, but comes out on top nonetheless thanks to a few specific qualities that struck perfect notes. In the end, the movie cannot earn a strong recommendation on my part, but perhaps a mild one. I am aware that the film has a serious fan base (a case in point being that Dragon Dynasty devoted a special edition DVD with bonus material to it a few years ago, which I can respect. After all, a one armed swordsman is a cool idea, and Jimmy Wang plays the part rather well. If the film had not overstayed its welcome, I might have been more enthusiastic.

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