For me to even think of reviewing this Chang Cheh classic when there are so many others on the net who’ve talked on and ON about it feels redundant in so many ways, but on the flipside, The One-Armed Swordsman is a film that has garnered so much awe and emotion that for me to NOT talk about the film would be a crime to myself as a fan of Hong Kong action cinema. I’ve heard my father speak of this film as something he had watched as a child from a broken home in Thailand, and I couldn’t begin to imagine how raw the viewing experience must have been as he connected with the film’s tragic hero, Fang Gang. Initially lambasted by the West as an exercise in exploitation and gore, The One-Armed Swordsman has now enjoyed fame and respect from both sides of the ocean as a genre-defining film filled with angst, tragedy and sacrifice. Simply put, The One-Armed Swordsman is one of the most significant films in Hong Kong action cinema.
The story begins as the Golden Sword school is attacked by enemies from a rival sword faction who are seeking to defeat Qi Rufeng, the school’s famed master. After incapacitating Qi, our would be evildoers move in for the kill, but his faithful servant Fang Chang intervenes and begins to fight. Although he is able to ward off the intruders, Fang Chang is mortally wounded, and the sword he employed throughout the fight has been broken in half. Cradled in the arms of his crying son Fang Gang, our protagonist, Fang Chang implores the reawakened Qi Rufeng to look after his son. Moved by Fang Chang’s sacrifice, Qi Rufeng pledges to him that he will look after Fang Gang and train him as one of his own students. With relief and gratitude washing over his visage, Fang Chang bids his son farewell and succumbs to his fate. Fang Gang, saddened by his father’s passing, can do nothing more that to take hold of what will become the only memento of that night, his father’s broken sword.
As Fang Gang grows into a young man, he continues to peer into the broken sword privately as he remembers the events that draped his youth in darkness. Although he is seen as the most skilled of Qi Rufeng’s up-and-coming students, Fang Gang makes the decision to be a humble man, even going so far as to do chores like chopping firewood. However, even that is not without its consequences as some of the other more wealthy students mock not only his status in life (he was the son of a servant after all) but his assumed ability to curry favor with Qi Rufeng. No one of this lot is more jealous of our hero than Qi Rufeng’s own daughter, Qi Pei-er. Spoiled and pretentious, it’s insinuated that Pei-er’s disdain of Fang Gang is a mixture of confusion, jealousy and physical attraction, making her all the more of a brat whenever the two collide. With things coming to a boil between Fang Gang and Pei-er, it takes our would be master to cool things down as he delivers a humble speech about the role of expectations. However, despite Qi Rufeng’s best attempts to make Fang Gang feel more welcome in the Golden Sword school, the insults and disdain surrounding our hero prove to be too much for him to handle. With a gracious and somber note left on his bed, Fang Gang departs, much to his master’s dismay.
However, as Fang Gang leaves in a frigid forest backdrop which screams iconic Shaw Brothers style, he is confronted by Pei-er and her two male miscreants from the previous caste-bitchfest to settle the score. Fang Gang, being the smug badass that he is, dispatches Pei-er’s two flunkies easily and overpowers Pei-er with minimal effort, leaving the latter in teary-eyed defeat. As Fang Gang tries to comfort the pouting Pei-er, she lashes out thoughtlessly with her sword and severs his right arm. With Fang Gang in utter disbelief, he limps away towards the river’s overpass and collapses onto the passing boat of Xiaoman, a woman who will help shape, nurture and challenge our hero in the near future.
Despite Fang Gang’s quick recovery under the care and hospitality of the affectionate Xiaoman, the physical loss of his arm becomes too much for him to bare. As a result, Xiaoman hands over to Fang Gang the only heirloom she has of her own blood-soaked youth, her father’s long sought-after sword-fighting manual. Although half of it was burned off years ago, what remains of the manual is the left-handed portion, which intrigues Fang Gang and inspires him to hone himself anew. As time passes, Fang Gang’s self-training bears fruit, providing him with a new-found sense of strength and self-confidence. However, Xiaoman sees it differently, fearing that she may have to bear another tragedy under the veil of Jiang Hu. Although Fang Gang initially dismisses his woman’s worries, the nefarious plots surrounding the Golden Sword school, conjured up by the Long-Armed Devil, soon being to weave a tangled web around him, forcing our hero to choose his future between the master who raised him, and the woman who loves him.
Some may say that the film is outdated compared to more contemporary wuxia films, but despite its age, The One-Armed Swordsman remains a classic that continues to enthrall genre fans and filmmakers to this day. On the surface, Chang Cheh’s film portrays the simple tale of a young man who overcomes personal tragedy to help his loved ones and redeem his father’s honor, but the layers of depth beneath can only be seen by looking at the bigger picture of the film’s world and the implications surrounding it. It’s clear early into the film that Fang Gang wants to make his mark in the world of Jiang Hu and wants to do good deeds as tribute to his father, but as Xiaoman points out to him during their relationship, the world of Jiang Hu is the same exact world that took both their fathers away and branded them with the burden of living on. In addition, despite Xiaoman’s pleas for Fang Gang to fish, farm and enjoy a simple life, Fang Gang’s life at the Golden Sword school has already defined what his sense of self-worth is, and unfortunately, it is in the mastery of the sword. This is obvious given his sense of self loathing when he finds himself unable to protect Xiaoman when she is harassed by swordsmen, along with the despair he feels when he is ridiculed for being “a cripple.” This leads us to the pivotal moment when Xiaoman hands over her father’s fighting manual to Fang Gang, gambling to see if the object that led her father to death will somehow spark her would-be lover to life. Taken together, these instances from Chang Cheh’s film illustrate to us that despite all of the grandiose and heroic musings that Jiang Hu seems to possess, it is nothing more than a gray world littered in a never-ending cycle of blood and fire. In the end however, this dark portrait of the wuxia world not only serves to raise the stakes for our troubled hero, but it also paints for us a timeless tale where a man can not only overcome his own turmoil to become a legend, he can do so with a woman by his side, a single arm, and ultimately, a broken sword.