Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

aka Shin Zatôichi: Yabure! Tôjinken

2019 #99
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan & Hong Kong / Japanese & Mandarin | 15

Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman

Crossovers are an enduring device in comic books — what better way to boost sales (or, if we’re being less cynical, mix things up) than have a guest appearance by another popular character? And the past decade has seen Marvel Studios turn the same principle into a massive movie money-spinner. Of course, they’re far from the first to attempt an on-screen crossover — and what could sound more comic-book-y than a blind swordsman meeting a one-armed swordsman?

This is the second such meet-up movie in the Zatoichi series. The first saw our hero face off against Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo… or someone with the same name played by the same actor, at any rate. That bait-and-switch was just one of many let-downs in what turned out to be the most disappointing film in the long-running series. With that in mind, perhaps it was foolhardy of me to look forward to this film. Certainly, it’s not the best-regarded Zatoichi adventure. But I really enjoyed the two original One-Armed Swordsman films (especially the first), so bringing that character into the beloved Zatoichi series had the potential to be a match made in martial arts heaven.

After the prerequisite Bondian pre-titles scene that reminds us of Ichi’s skill with a sword, we’re introduced to Wang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu), the eponymous one-armed swordsman from China, who’s travelling across Japan to meet an acquaintance at a monastery. Falling in with a family of Chinese performers, they come across a procession by a local lord, but the family’s young son gets in the way and is threatened with violence, so Wang Kang steps in to defend him. Offended, the samurai attack, killing all witnesses, including the boy’s parents. Wang Kang escapes and the slaughter is blamed on him, leading to a manhunt for the supposed fugitive. Ichi, wandering as always, encounters the boy and Wang Kang, and tries to help despite the language barrier.

Creating a new one-armed swordsman

An array of other characters come into the mix, as you’d expect from a Zatoichi film, including Oyone (Michie Terada) and her kindhearted parents, who take the fugitives in; Osen (Yūko Hama), a prostitute who falls for Ichi (don’t they all?); Kakuzen (Kōji Nanbara), Wang Kang’s friend at the monastery, who has plans of his own; and a trio of drunken gamblers who provide comic relief, including a risible fart gag. But that aside, the film has a dark, brooding tone. I mean, it starts with a massacre of innocents that’s blamed on the wrong man — hardly cheery — and that’s just the first of many tragic injustices visited upon these characters. And when the bad guys aren’t being menacing, Ichi is; like when he casually takes a guy’s ear off to get him to talk, or the moment when he closes in for the kill on the villainous boss, blowing the blindman’s whistle that said boss had earlier goaded him about… It’s triumphant, but also kinda chilling. Put yourself in the shoes of the men Ichi gets pitted against and you can see him as a kind of nigh-indestructible bogeyman.

The tragedy extends as far as the ending, which is both frustrating and poignant. “If we’d understood each other’s words, we wouldn’t have had to fight,” says each of the men… except, er, they did have a way to understand each other, thanks to the bilingual boy. Have a sword fight first, ask questions later, I guess. But anyway, it’s frustrating because they didn’t need to fight (they were both good guys!), but it’s poignant because their basic natures, compounded by misunderstandings, meant they did fight — and because they fought, one of them had to die. It’s a damn good fight, mind; in fact, this is an excellent instalment for combat all round, thanks in part to there being another exceptional swordsman in town. The Chinese swordsman brings his own style, too, meaning there’s an array of stunts and tricks more familiar from Hong Kong action movies than Japanese ones. Indeed, Wang Kang is well served by the film all round. Sure, it’s still Zatoichi’s movie overall, but the guest star gets a couple of scenes to himself to show off, as well as his own honourable storyline.

The real one-armed swordsman

Nonetheless, rumours abound of an alternate cut, released in Chinese markets, that placed even more emphasis on Wang Kang. There doesn’t seem to be any firm evidence of its existence, but some people swear to have seen it, many years ago. Reports vary on just how different it is, ranging from merely the last 30 seconds being modified so that a different combatant wins the final duel, to there being additional Wang Kang fight sequences scattered throughout the movie. Considering this was a Japanese-Chinese co-production, it makes sense each market would prefer a version where their hero wins… although, of course, they could’ve come up with a storyline that saw the eponymous swordsman fight earlier, come to a draw, and then team up for the climax, seeing as they’re both heroes ‘n’ all. Ah well.

The version we do get to see is as much a Zatoichi film as any other. It keeps in play many of the series’ familiar elements — not just exciting action scenes, but also emotional drama, a gambling scene with a difference, and humorous interludes that are actually moderately amusing — but adds some HK-style martial arts to the mix for a different flavour. The result may not be wholly perfect, but Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is a much better example of how to team-up two icons than the series’ previous attempt.

4 out of 5

ManHunt (2017)

2018 #94
John Woo | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | China & Hong Kong / Japanese, English & Mandarin | 15

ManHunt

John Woo’s latest movie is now “A Netflix Film” in the UK, US, and presumably some other territories too. After almost 15 years spent making period dramas, it’s a return to the contemporary action-thriller genre that made his name. Whether it represents a return to his previous quality… well…

ManHunt introduces us to Du Qiu (Hanyu Zhang), a Chinese lawyer for a Japanese pharmaceutical firm, credited with saving the company when he won a court case three years ago. Now he’s leaving to head to America, but the company’s president tries to persuade him to stay by sending a sexy lady to wait at his house. Unfortunately for Du, when he wakes up the next morning she’s dead and he’s the prime suspect. Soon he’s on the run to clear his name, with hot-shot cop Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) on his tail, though he’s not convinced of his target’s guilt. That’s just the start of it — why would someone want to frame Du for murder? Well, it gets complicated…

For the first half of its running time, ManHunt is a baffling experience. Not so much because of the plot — though that sets so many wheels in motion that one must pay attention — but because of how it’s put together. One major problems is the way it casually mixes together multiple languages, leading to some flat translations (that’s being kind — maybe the screenplay, which comes courtesy of seven screenwriters, was unexciting to begin with) and clunky line delivery. But hey, this is an action movie, so we can forgive some iffy performances. A greater barrier to enjoyment comes in the form of Taro Iwashiro’s underpowered, plinky-plonky score. That might be fine during chatty scenes, but it continues into the early action sequences, robbing them of pace, dynamism, and excitement. It’s a thoroughly bizarre choice that undermines the film’s raison d’être.

Not chuffed to be cuffed

With its unoriginal innocent-man-on-the-run story and disengaging production quirks, it’s tempting to give up on ManHunt before the half-hour mark. However, director John Woo does begin to sneak in some of his trademark flair. One particularly good bit sees Yamura and his new partner visit the crime scene to go over what they think happened. Woo mixes together their reenactment with flashbacks in interesting, increasingly overlapping ways… until the sequence ends with the female officer getting hysterical, the old-fashioned-ness of which undercuts the sequence a little right at the end.

As the various plot strands kicked off at the start begin to come together, the film becomes increasingly worth watching. If you can make it through the first half, the second begins to revel in its own silliness. It stops mattering that everyone has to deliver dialogue in at least two languages but none of them can actually act in more than one. It stops mattering that the plot barely makes sense — in fact, it actually improves the crazier it gets. A framed man on the run? Yawn. A pharmaceutical company searching for a secret formula to perfect the currently-lethal super-soldier drug it’s testing on homeless people, which is in the possession of the widow of a former employee they killed for alleged corporate espionage, and using drug-enhanced hitwomen to do its dirty work while corrupt addict cops cover up the indiscretions of its president’s son? Awesome. And the action finally kicks into gear too, gradually shifting first into having some good moments, then into whole sequences that are worth your time. Is it all too little too late? Kinda. But at least it rewards those prepared to stick with it.

Sharing is caring

In many ways I should give ManHunt just 2 stars, but that would be to ignore the fact that I’m glad I watched it. But if a 3-star rating is any kind of recommendation, here it’s a very cautious one.

3 out of 5

ManHunt is available on Netflix now.

Dragon (2011)

aka Wu xia

2016 #190
Peter Ho-sun Chan | 94 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong & China / Mandarin | 15 / R

Dragon (Wu Xia)

Donnie Yen is small town paper-maker Jinxi, who incidentally encounters and accidentally defeats two most-wanted criminals. While his village thanks him, detective Baijiu is suspicious — does Jinxi’s story add up? Is he hiding some dark past?

Takeshi Kaneshiro is expert detective Xu Baijiu, who adheres slavishly to the law after a past mistake cost him dearly. But is he delusional, inventing connections and powers for Jinxi that just aren’t there? Or are his delusions allowing him to see the truth?

As a Hong Kong production starring Donnie Yen, of course Dragon is an action movie, but there’s more to it than fisticuffs. It engages with themes of justice and redemption, and what it means not only to take the right action, but to have to find the right action to take. Apparently it began life as a remake of One-Armed Swordsman, and while obvious superficial resemblances remain (the Big Bad Boss Man is played by Jimmy Wang Yu, and Yen has to (spoilers!) lop off his own arm), you can definitely see familiar plot points in both films too. But it’s also certainly not a remake anymore. Funny how these things go.

Can I Baijiu a Jinxi?

Naturally, when the action does kick in, it’s fantastic. With the combat directed by Yen, these sequences are expertly and inventively choreographed dust-ups. It’s stylishly directed by Peter Chan — classy, but also thrilling, exciting, and sometimes innovative; and the whole is majestically shot by DP Lai Yiu-Fai (who also shot Infernal Affairs, which I still haven’t seen).

On the downside, at a couple of points I thought the story leapt a little bit or fudged a detail, which is a shame because I don’t think it needed to. This is possibly the effect of watching the international version, which is cut by around 17 minutes (full details here). While it’s a shame, it’s certainly not enough to ruin an excellent martial arts drama.

4 out of 5

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

Ip Man 3 (2015)

aka Yip Man 3

2016 #108
Wilson Yip | 105 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese & English | 12 / PG-13

Donnie Yen returns as the eponymous kung fu master, who’s most famous for training Bruce Lee, to complete a trilogy of biographically-dubious but broadly entertaining actioners.

This time round, Ip comes into conflict with property developer Mike Tyson (yes, that Mike Tyson) when he tries to buy out Ip’s son’s primary school. The principal refuses, violence ensues, and Ip and his students end up essentially working as security guards. While he’s busy doing that, Ip is once again neglecting his home life, where his wife (Lynn Hung) is getting mysterious stomach pains…

That occupies most of the film, anyway, until it suddenly resolves what appears to be the main story a good half-hour from the end, then spins out one of the subplots into the main storyline for the third act. It’s a remarkably odd structural choice. On the bright side, that means it may just surprise you a little — it dodges the boredom of, “well he can’t win now because this fight can’t be the climax”, or, “well that guy’s totally going to go back on his word because there’s half-an-hour left yet”, and so on. Predictable it is not. Well, OK, a fair bit of it is still predictable — you know who’s going to win in the end, don’t you? — but how many movies have you seen where the main villain is dealt with and/or simply set aside at the end of act two, and an almost-completely-new story powers the final act?

The downside is it makes a lot of the story feel like a case of something-and-nothing. Tyson is no real threat, not least because he’s barely in the film and can’t act for toffee, but related subplots — like the potential romance between one of Ip’s students and one of the school’s teachers — literally disappear without a trace. Even when there’s a young pretender to Ip’s title of grandmaster, there’s little sense that they may’ve opted for a “changing of the guard”-type narrative for the trilogy-capper. And, as with both of the previous films, the less said about the film’s attitude to foreigners the better (though I guess Hong Kong’s British occupiers weren’t exactly above reproach).

However, the film does deliver in two key areas. The storyline of the wife’s illness finally tackles Ip’s family issues head on. That conflict between his dedication to his martial arts life and his consequent semi-abandonment of his family has been an undercurrent throughout all three films, but I don’t believe they’ve engaged with it fully until now. That he chooses to forgo a challenge to be by his wife’s side stands in counterpoint to the climax of the second film, where he missed his son’s birth to fight a duel. Not only that, but these events finally get under Ip’s unflappably stoic demeanour, and Yen lets Ip’s polite blank-faced reserve crack. In some respects, it pays off having kept that up for most of three movies. Maybe I’m just being soft today or maybe it is well performed, but either way I really felt the emotional impact of this storyline.

The other key area is the action, with famed choreographer Yuen Woo-ping taking over from Sammo Hung, who choreographed parts one and two. Early bouts are not bad, though surprisingly underwhelming, but things really pick up later on. An elevator fight between Ip and a Thai boxer is the absolute high point, an incredible close-quarters action scene that spills out into a stairwell, but Donnie Yen vs Mike Tyson is a very good sequence also, and the climax ain’t half bad. Particular props to the sound designers in that last one, especially the clanging, squealing knives.

After an awkward first half, Ip Man 3 gradually transitions into a rewarding set of circumstances, on both the action and emotional fronts. The lack of consistency may mean it doesn’t satisfy fans as much as the first film did, but I’d say it’s a step up from the second, and definitely worth a look for fans of the old punching-and-kicking-and-hitting-each-other-with-poles-and-knives.

4 out of 5

Ip Man 3 is available on Netflix UK from today.

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)

aka Wu Lang ba gua gun / The Invincible Pole Fighters

2016 #75
Liu Chia-liang | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese & Mandarin | 18

When a warrior family are betrayed and killed, the surviving siblings seek vengeance.

Although the story features a lot of back-and-forth-ing to little avail, there are parts to commend it — the sequence where one son brutally inducts himself into a Buddhist temple is fantastic. Less clever: proving he isn’t too war-obsessed to become a monk by… fighting the other monks.

(Said monks are pacifists, refusing to kill wolves because that’s cruel. Instead, they defang them… presumably ensuring a slow death when they can’t feed. Well done, monks.)

Anyway, it’s rear-loaded with exceptional fight choreography, so providentially ends on a high.

3 out of 5

For more quick reviews like this, look here.

King Boxer (1972)

aka Five Fingers of Death / Tian xia di yi quan

2016 #12
Cheng Chang Ho | 98 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin | 15 / R

Released in the US as Five Fingers of Death, this popularised kung fu Stateside… before Enter the Dragon came along just a few months later and completely overshadowed it.

Viewed today, it’s a bit cheesy (which is par for the course, really), and does occasionally drag with the back and forth machinations of the rival schools. But there’s a good level of action (the primary reason to watch any kung fu movie worth its salt, surely), and a particularly stunning, casually inventive, multi-fight climax.

Also look out for “the Kill Bill sound effect” (actually from Ironside) and Evil Michael McIntyre.

4 out of 5

Film4’s Revenge of Martial Arts Gold season concludes tonight at 1:35am with The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter.

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.