(A.k.a. DU BEI DAO)
A relatively early film from the Shaw Brothers production stable, 1967's THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN is also notable for being one of the first movies to truly expose the influential style and verve of director Chang Cheh (whose insanely prolific output during the 1970s includes the likes of THE HEROIC ONES, THE WATER MARGIN, FIVE DEADLY VENOMS and many more). In particular, THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN is widely acknowledged as the godfather of "wuxia" sword-play cinema.
SWORDSMAN opens with the prestigious Golden Sword School coming under attack from a gang of bandits looking to assassinate the kung fu academy's headmaster, Qi Ru Feng (Tien Feng). It seems he foiled their attempted robbery of a caravan just a few days earlier, and now they want revenge. Feng's faithful servant Fang Cheng (Ku Feng) happens to be a rather nifty swordsman himself, and puts up a valiant, bare-chested attempt at protecting his master's life. Indeed, he fends off Feng's would-be assailants ... albeit having been fatally wounded in the process. In his dying moments, Cheng asks that Feng look after his son.
It's all a matter of honour, of course, and Feng not only raises Kang (Jimmy Wang) but schools him in the ways of martial arts. Which, of course, is bound to come in useful at some point ...
As the years pass by, Kang becomes a model student under Feng's tutelage. But this isn't enough to win the respect of his classmates who still insist on belittling him on account of his poor background. Even Feng's daughter Pei Er (Angela Pan) scorns Kang for his lowly origins, referring to him as a servant - although it transpires that she's just bitter but she secretly has designs on him and can't accept his indifference in return.
Tired of what they perceive as Kang getting preferential treatment from Feng, especially as the master has announced his imminent retirement and is looking for a suitable replacement, Pei Er and two of her fellow students challenge Kang to a brawl. They plan to bring him down to Earth and set the trial for midnight that night in the neighbouring woods. Proving he's no coward, Kang accepts the challenge.
The ensuing altercation results in Pei Er chopping Kang's arm off. Ironically, Kang had already decided that the other students were never going to accept him and that this was making life difficult for Feng, and so had planned to leave the school anyway.
Kang staggers away, bleeding heavily. He makes it as a far as a bridge before losing consciousness and falling towards the river below - but actually landing in a boat being rowed by peasant girl Xiao Man (Lisa Chiao Chiao).
She takes him back to her grandfather's hut in the woods and together they Kang back to health. But Kang is despondent because he can longer practice his beloved kung fu. Ah, but then Xiao Man produces a damaged manual left to her by her late parents ... which promises to teach Kang a new style of martial arts suited to his one-armed needs. Before long, he's honed his skills to a level even greater than before. Oh, and there's a definite romantic interest developing between these two ...
But such matters will have to wait, because Kang learns that Feng's arch rivals Long Armed Devil (Yeung Chi-hing) and Smiling Tiger Cheng (Tang Ti) are plotting to kill the master during his impending retirement ceremony.
Can Kang save the day and repay Feng for the lifetime of kindness he'd shown to him?
THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN is over 50 years old but feels timeless, thanks to its rich production values, meticulous period settings, luscious widescreen compositions (shot in ShawScope, as the poster tells us ...) and ever-prescient themes of loyalty, honour and retribution.
Its influence upon Asian cinema is undeniable, and obvious in not only the expert choreography of the sword-fights but also the generous bloodletting (rather eye-opening for its time) and slick, colourful style. Indeed, the film's bold colour palettes are a constant delight: from the garish reds of the theatrical fake blood to the dazzling costumes and beyond, this is a veritable feast for the eyes. And who can resist gory combat scenes when they're set against snowy landscapes?
The romantic angle doesn't drag the mid-section down, as it's all handled rather subtly and Wang's character remains far too angry and focused to let something like a burgeoning relationship knock him off course. Speaking of Wang, his charisma shines through in every scene, making him the true star among a very able cast.
The film was sufficiently successful to warrant a slew of sequels and spin-offs, beginning with the 1969 sequel RETURN OF THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN.
The film is presented in its full unexpurgated form (116 minutes and 1 second long), housed as an MPEG4-AVC file on this region B disc and benefiting from 1080p clarity.
Struck from a remarkably clean print, this transfer respects the film's original 2.35:1 ratio, proffering pleasing levels of bright colours and clear detail. Blacks are a little fainter than usual levels but do at least remain stable throughout. Upon close inspection, there is a little waxiness evident in flesh tones, suggesting noise reduction has been applied, but unless you're watching this on a humongous screen this is unlikely to upset most naked eyes.
Lossless mono audio tracks are available in both original Mandarin and an English dub. Both are good propositions, though it should be noted that the film's tone is changed somewhat by the English dubbing artists' (mocking?) approach to the material. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easy to make out at all times.
The disc opens to a static main menu page. There is no scene selection menu.
And so, on to the bonus material ...
The fun begins with a very fine audio commentary from film historian Bey Logan. He speaks fluently and in an engaging manner while serving up a treasure trove of insight, trivia and backgrounds on cast and crew members.
"Blade of Glory" is a new 17-minute featurette with David West, author of the 2006 book "Chasing Dragons: An Introduction to the Martial Arts Film". West knows his stuff too, speaking in an amiable, fast-paced manner in more detail about the film's production history. He also talks about the film's coy approach to sex, the influence of the film and its huge box office success. West's theory as to why the filmmakers chose to film in Mandarin rather than Cantonese makes sense too. Some nicely-placed stills and clips accompany this one.
We also get a 4-page colour booklet containing liner notes, double-sided reversible cover artwork and - if you order directly from 88 Films' website - a nifty collectors' slipcase which reproduces the movie's attractive original poster art.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by 88 Films|