Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1969)

aka Du bei dao wang

2016 #101
Chang Cheh | 101 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin

Return of the One-Armed SwordsmanIn this lesser sequel to the exceptional original, the titular warrior’s life of peace is disrupted when a gang called the Eight Kings capture all the sword masters and order their students to chop off their sword arms.

With ten varied adversaries to defeat — the Eight Kings plus their enforcers, the Black and White Knights — Return puts greater emphasis on action than did its more dramatic forebear. The fighting is solid, with the enemies’ different skills adding some occasional freshness, but the plot underneath is thin. It makes for a decent but largely unremarkable, kind of run-of-the-mill, martial arts adventure.

3 out of 5

The Boxer from Shantung (1972)

aka Mǎ Yǒng Zhēn

2016 #56
Chang Cheh & Hsueh Li Pao | 125 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin | 18

The problem with watching so many Shaw Brothers movies so close together, as I have this year, is they begin to blur into one. There’s definitely a house style to the stories, the photography, the sets — everything, really. Even the particularly good ones can fail to lodge in the memory as discrete units.

That said, The Boxer from Shantung is a particularly good one. It tells the based-(loosely)-on-a-true-story tale of Ma Yongzhen (Chen Kuan-tai), a small-town guy labouring in Shanghai. After an encounter with gangster Tan Si (David Chiang), Ma decides that’s the life for him, and sets out to climb the crime ladder.

The Boxer from Shantung displays a greater focus on plot and character than is perhaps typical for a Shaw Bros movie, but doesn’t exactly stint on action either — the sequences are a little more spread out than usual, and it results in a just-over-two-hours runtime that isn’t typical for these films. Fortunately, it’s an engrossing enough story that this isn’t a problem, even if the narrative has a rise-and-fall kind of shape that is fairly familiar in the gangster genre.

Nonetheless, where the film really comes to life is in its stonking climax — a massive brawl in which Ma kicks everyone’s ass for quarter of an hour, even with an axe embedded in his stomach. At the end of the day, tightly choreographed and expertly performed action sequences such as this are why we come to these movies; and, at the end of the day, The Boxer from Shantung doesn’t disappoint.

4 out of 5

The Five Venoms (1978)

aka Five Deadly Venoms / Wu du / Mm Dook

2016 #9
Chang Cheh | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin | 18 / R

Some say The Five Venoms is one of the very best martial arts films ever made. Some say it’s the best. I’m afraid I have to disagree. Strongly.

It begins with a daft premise: a student is instructed to find five former pupils and a teacher, but he doesn’t know their names or where they went. All he knows is their fighting styles, which they will use in an emergency, and that the ex-teacher is rich. Presumably he therefore had to scour the entire country watching everyone fight until he stumbled on the right guys. Oh, and there’s a time limit because the pupils may go after the teacher’s money… though how the chap who’s setting this mission is supposed to know they haven’t already, I don’t know.

So the plot is a non-starter, but we don’t watch kung fu movies for the plot. Unfortunately, The Five Venoms seems to think we do, because action is actually in short supply. When a decent slab of it does arrive, in the form of a five-way fight for the climax, it’s somehow boring. Before then there’s bouts of torture and plain violence, and while the blood is as fake as ever, the style is cold and gruesome. The only really good bits come from the characters’ imagination: there’s the opening scene, with flashback demonstrations of everyone’s powers, in comic-book-gaudy colours; and later, the student teams up with one of the ex-pupils to plan and prepare, and as they practice we see the villains appear through their imagination.

I’m not sure what people see here to call it one of the greatest martial arts movies ever. The establishment of the Five Venoms and their styles, all of that mythology, seems to be a big thing for some people. I keep reading things like “the concept of the five Venom styles is simply amazing”, or that “the mythology alone is exquisite”, but I just don’t buy it. There’s nothing wrong with it — it’s a decent setup — but to call it a “mythology” is bordering on grandiose. And whether it’s a full-blown mythology or just a high-concept setup, either way it’s not that incredibly mind-blowing a concept.

The hype means that The Five Venoms is a disappointment — cheesy, convoluted, sometimes nonsensical, lacking in action, and, worst of all, often dull.

2 out of 5

The Five Venoms is on Film4 tonight at 11:10pm as part of their Revenge of Martial Arts Gold season.

One-Armed Swordsman (1967)

aka Du bei dao

2016 #58
Chang Cheh | 116 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin

After martial arts student Fang Cheng is killed protecting his master, the latter takes in Cheng’s infant son, Fang Kang, as his student. Years later, Fang Kang is bullied by his aristocratic classmates and treated as a servant by the master’s daughter, Pei, though he’s a better student than any of them. Eventually goaded into leaving, his fellows corner him, challenge him, accidentally lop off his sword arm, and leave him for dead. Kids, eh? Fortunately, Kang is found by orphan Xiao Man, who nurses him back to health. With the help of an old textbook, he learns to fight left-handed, which is handy because there’s a conspiracy underway to kill all of his master’s former pupils…

One-Armed Swordsman is a relatively early and defining entry in the martial arts genre — it inspired countless “one-armed” imitators, not to mention numerous sequels and remakes starring the titular hero (he even crossed over into the Zatoichi series, which obviously I’ll get to one day). Being so early and formative, it apparently plays as quite rote and clichéd to anyone very familiar with the genre, though of course it was establishing those clichés rather than succumbing to them. As a relative kung fu neophyte, however, such elements are much less troubling. Sure, there are plot points that are recognisable from other movies, but that’s genre — any genre — for you.

Besides, as is the case with most works that inspired many imitators, there’s a reason they provoked copycats, and that’s because they’re darned good in themselves. One-Armed Swordsman is not a fight-a-minute actioner like some of its genre stablemates, but it doesn’t need to be. When action does explode onto the screen, it’s fantastically done, with a fair few smaller tussles along the way before it reaches an almighty climax. Nothing innovative in that kind of structure, of course, but the bouts are all well choreographed and performed, and the villain’s “sword lock” weapon is a neat touch.

However, for me the film also worked very well as a drama, and even sometimes as a romantic drama. Fang Kang is an interesting protagonist. His lifestyle is torn from him, and rather than simplistically train to regain it or give up entirely, he battles with that decision. He returns to that way of life only to defend himself and his rescuer, and then out of a sense of loyalty to the master who raised him, but he’s also prepared to abandon the martial life to be a farmer… when the job is done, naturally. Jimmy Wang Yu, in a star-making turn, sells this character arc as well as anyone in a kung fu picture ever has. He’s also (somewhat) torn between two women, the kindly and supportive Xiao Man, and brat-with-a-heart Pei. While no one could truthfully call this a romantic picture, the love-triangle aspect also functions surprisingly well.

Another joy is the dialogue — though that may be accidental, because who can say how much of it was in the original script and how much in the particular set of subtitles I watched. And naturally I can only speak of the copy I watched, which was riddled with spelling and grammar errors, so I can’t guarantee you’ll find the same enjoyment from a more (shall we say) legal edition. Nonetheless, I submitted a handful of my favourite moments to IMDb’s quote section, so you too can revel in the offhand way everyone keeps referring to the minor infraction of cutting someone’s bloomin’ arm off.

In my previous reviews of Shaw Brothers movies (like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) I’ve mentioned their positions on “greatest kung fu movies”-type lists (and that’ll come up again next week when I review Five Deadly Venoms). One-Armed Swordsman doesn’t seem to feature on those as often, nor chart as highly when it does. I disagree with that. Perhaps those lists are based on the abundance of action in these films, by which metric this probably has too much drama — though, as I said, it’s not devoid of fisticuffs and swordplay. Combine that with a solid story, engaging characters, and a brisk pace (even with its near-two-hour running time), and you have one of my favourite Shaw Brothers movies I’ve yet seen.

4 out of 5

The One-Armed Swordsman returns in Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, part of Film4’s Revenge of Martial Arts Gold season tonight at 1:40am.