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New One-Armed Swordsman
(San duk bei do, 1971)

Chang Cheh

Hong Kong

93 min, color, Mandarin (English subtitles)

Review © 2005 Branislav L. Slantchev

This has nothing to do with either the original Jimmy Wang Yu swordsman or its sequel, even if David Chiang appeared in the latter as a hapless youngster who got skewered while on night patrol. So this entry in the saga to which it does not belong must be regarded as a crass commercial attempt to exploit the popularity of the unlikely maimed hero. As such, it is guaranteed to sport a swordsman with one-arm who is reluctant to partake in martial arts intrigue for one reason or another, but who finds himself drawn back into the nasty world he was trying to quit by some event or other.

The less well-known Two-Armed Swordsman Ku Feng and soon to be ex co-conspirators Yau Ming and Cheng Hong Yip

The original one-armed swordsman had his important appendage cut off by a jealous scorned woman. In the first film, he had decided to quit because of his love for another woman whose peacenik tendencies would put any A.N.S.W.E.R. activist to shame. He made a valiant effort to overcome his own nature that kept pulling him back into the nitty-gritty of the worldly affairs, compelling him to put his skills in service of justice, honor, and responsibility. It was a deeply personal decision that was very hard to make. In the end, having fulfilled his duty, he renounced the world yet again, and retired with his lover into what he hoped was permanent seclusion.

Baby Queen Li Ching with David Chiang Lau Gong laughs at the Chinese with Disabilities Act

The sequel replaced the personal dilemma with impersonal events driving people against their will. A vast conspiracy of eight sinister kings is threatening to subjugate everyone in the martial arts world, including the one-armed swordsman who cannot escape his reputation. He has no choice but to intervene and help stop their advance but in the process he sacrifices too much yet again: this time, it is the lives of all those young idealistic men who followed him. So his victory is once again hollow, making the entire undertaking morally ambiguous.

Wang Chung and Lau Gong mistreating the Baby Queen Ti Lung gets twin-swordly on the thugs

This film sees not only a brand new one-armed swordsman with David Chiang replacing Jimmy Wang Yu, but a degradation to a rather pedestrian revenge plot that does not hold a candle to either one of the first two (and that's saying a lot because I already claimed I did not like the second one all that much). Despite the weak premise, Chang Cheh uses this film to pile up basically all his signature tricks. We have bloodied people rolling down hills in slow motion, an innumerable body count, extreme male bonding bordering on the homoerotic, a woman as the upsetter of the natural balance, and plenty of well-choreographed action sequences with some spectacularly grizzly details, like severed hands pinned to trees or railings.

Yeah, good question, why wouldn't he fight? Wong Kwong Yue and Huang Pei Chi in funny clothes

David Chiang starts out with two arms as the cocky master of the Twin Swords technique Lei Li. He apparently wanders around on horseback and on foot and kills lots of people, but I take it this is all for a good cause. Unbeknownst to him, the ostensibly just and very popular Master Long (Ku Feng) is not happy with this upstart, among others. So he prepares a special technique with the three-section staff that is designed specifically to defeat Twin Swords. This thing never ceases to amaze me. It has been repeatedly demonstrated in all these martial arts films that techniques and weapons are intransitive. That is, if technique A defeats B, and B defeats C, it does not follow that A will defeat C as well. Each technique has its fatal flaw, and I have never understood why it is that people insist on sticking to their schtick especially when they know that others have seen it and can therefore analyze it, presumably uncovering a way to counter it.

Take this sword and try to be a man Li Ching is a cat in a bag

So while I can excuse Lei Li for falling into Long's trap (after all, until this point the technique has been secret), I will not excuse Long himself when he later insists on continuing to deploy it against the very opponent that he has defeated once using it. But I am getting ahead of myself. So Lei Li foolishly makes a bet that if Long defeats him he would cut off his right arm and retire from active murder-for-good practice. He keeps his word alright, but somehow it is much less compelling dramatically than poor Jimmy Wang Yu getting his arm sliced off by a woman. At any rate, Lei Li finds a job as a cook/server although kneading dough is not as easy as one might thing when one has just one arm.

THIS is what real men do The quintessential Chang Cheh vision

Having renounced the martial arts world, Lei Li is determined to stick to his vow not to practice his formidable skills for anything other than making omelets. He endures constant abuse by all sorts of shady characters who apparently do not take the Chinese with Disabilities Act seriously. But not only does he keep to himself when others mock him, he must deal with the unchivalrous passes thugs make at the woman he loves. This woman (who loves him back) is Ba Jiao (Baby Queen Li Ching) who cannot understand why he would not protect himself, at least by carrying around a sword for purposes of deterrence. While one may legitimately argue, as he does, that with a sword the abuse may get more dangerous and lethal, this still does not explain why he nearly let Wang Chung and Lau Gong rape his girlfriend.

Chen Hsing and Ku Feng love the smell of treachery in the morning Long stares = he's never coming back

While Lei Li is making palm impressions on the stairs in frustration, Hero Fung (Ti Lung) saves the day and the girl's honor. However, he can clearly see that Lei Li has held back and is as puzzled as I am about the reason. It takes him a while to figure it out, but in the end he realizes who Lei Li really is, and in a surprising logically but totally coherent in Chang Cheh's world turn of events, decides to quit the martial arts world as well and grow rice in a happy threesome with Lei Li and Ba Jiao. The actual bonding between the two is nauseating. Ba Jiao is kidnapped by the same two thugs and Fung rescues her, and then explains why it is that Lei Li would not touch a sword. In the next scene, Lei Li thanks Fung, they laugh, hug, and then decide to go for a drink (still embracing) until the neglected Ba Jiao actually makes a fuss about it. The two totally bound by now heroes look at each other with huge grins on their faces that clearly say something like "Oh, the little woman is still here. Okay, let's throw her a bone so she does not squeak too much," after which Lei Li actually allows her to hold his sleeve (his arm is busy hugging Fung), to which she agrees with glee and obvious relief.

Gratuitous shot of Ti Lung Miranda-shmiranda, you have the right to a close shave

If it got any more homoerotic than this, Chang Cheh would not have been able to release this film. But it does not stop there. We are forced to endure Fung perched on a one-rope hammock lovingly gazing upon Lei Li cooking and doing the dishes. This is followed by some more lofty talk of admiration and making plans for a future together. When Fung goes off to see Long, mistakenly believing that the old man is also tricked by those evil-doers who, well do all the evil around, Lei Li attempts to warn him about Long's staff technique but is brushed off in what has got to be the least persistent attempt to save a friend's life I have seen. Naturally, Fung is murdered, and this sets off Lei Li in a way that neither being personally abused nor seeing his girl raped could. In other words, his bond with Fung is so strong that it pulls him out of his self-imposed stupor and causes him to take up arms, eh... a sword, again.

Ti Lung in trial by ordeal My Sword Must Go On

This is why I did not find this film nearly as interesting as the others. It's not that I object to male bonding (although I much prefer less of it, or at least not served in a such a syrupy fashion---I love to watch Ti Lung pine for Ching Li but when he does the same for David Chiang, I just can't get into it). It's not that I object to sequels that are both disconnected from the prequels and bloodier to boot. It's not even that some directors treat women with dismissal and sometimes hostility; that's their prerogative. But when simple revenge supplants personal struggle or even Marxist "forces of history" motivation, I feel cheated. Revenge simply does not appear all that noble in my value system. And neither does cutting off one's own arm over a lost bet. Just does not score well on the sympathy for the character scale. Standing idly while your girl is assaulted is also pretty low. At least Ti Lung was dashing in his fight scenes, and Li Ching was stunning in her "be useless or assaulted and bat eyelids a lot" scenes.

The New and Improved One-Armed Swordsman Ku Feng just spontaneously grew a wider right-side

The DVD from Celestial is excellent. I have the One-Armed Swordsman Collection which includes the three films in a nice cardboard box. This film is presented in anamorphic widescreen at 2.35:1, and it looks great. The colors are beautiful, and some of the shots truly stand out (e.g., the rain scene with David Chiang and Li Ching). It comes with a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack in Mandarin, and I have no complaints about it. The English subtitles are nice although there were a couple of places where they neglected to translate some of the dialogue. The extras are limited to the usual: trailers, talent files, and photo galleries. Despite my grumbling about the motivation of the main character, this is an essential film for all those who like Chang Cheh, or admire Ti Lung and Li Ching. I am three for three here, so naturally I own the DVD. You should too.

December 24, 2005