Director: Cheng Cheh
88 Films

The Shaw Brothers trend-setting and spinoff-inspiring Eastmancolor, Shawscope wuxia THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN comes to Region B Blu-ray from 88 Films.

Master swordsman and teacher Qi Jufeng (Feng Tien, A BETTER TOMORROW) makes an enemy of bandit Long-Armed Devil (Chih-Ching Yang, THE ENCHANTING SHADOW) when he foils a caravan robbery. One night, Long-Armed Devil, his cousin Smiling Tiger (Ti Tang, GOLDEN SWALLOW, and their band of assassins attempt to ambush him. Drugged with a sleeping draught, Qi becomes vulnerable but his servant Fang Kang (Yu Wang, MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE) ably defends him to the last man who still manages to stab him. Fang Kang utters his dying wish to Qi that he take own young son under his wing and teach him to be a master swordsman. Over a decade later, Fang Kang the younger (also Wang) hides his light under a bushel, working as a devoted servant to Qi even as he must endure the contempt of the senior students – lead by arrogant Brother Sun (Pei-Shan Chang, HONG KONG EMMANUELLE) – as well as Qi's spoiled daughter Pei (Yin-Tze Pan, COME DRINK WITH ME) who challenges him to a three-on-one dual to prove his own swordsmanship after he refuses to engage her in practice. Overhearing Qi arguing with his wife arguing over his favoritism of Fang over his daughter as well as the students gossiping about him, Fang feels ashamed of causing strife in Qi's family and in the school and leaves a note announcing his departure. When confronted by Sun and Pei, they are so eager to fight him that they even take his selfless act as a betrayal of Qi. Fang fights off Sun with his sword but refuses to engage with Pei unless it is hand-to-hand. He easily bests Pei who loses her temper and draws her sword, chopping off Fang's right arm. Fang wanders off and collapses from blood loss off of a bridge and into the fishing boat of Xiao Man (Chiao Chiao, BLOOD OF THE DRAGON) while Qi assumes he has fallen into the river and drowned. Xiao nurses Fang back to health with the help of Grandpa Wang (Li Jen Ho, ENTER THE DRAGON) but Fang can only see himself as a useless cripple now. Out of gratitude for Xiao's hospitality, Fang tries to be helpful and realizes that he is able to learn to fish with left hand but feels once again frustrated when he is unable to defend Xiao when she is harassed by bandits under Smiling Tiger who has returned to the area to spy on Qi. Although she strongly believes that revenge only begets revenge after the murder of a father she barely remembers, Xiao gifts Fang with a rare tome of left-handed sword techniques, which is quite fortuitous as all of Qi's students have learned right-handed techniques and Long-Armed Devil has developed the "Sword Lock" technique using a weapon designed for the left hand and leaving the right hand free to finish off victims with a dagger in his plan to kill Qi and massacre his students on the occasion of Qi's fifty-fifth birthday when he has gathered all current and former students to announce his successor.

As trend-setting an effort for Hong Kong cinema in the wuxia genre as A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS for Italy's spaghetti westerns – both drawing from Japanese samurai cinema and cinematic techniques – THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN made a star out of Wang (although he was eclipsed for international audiences by Bruce Lee) and spawned a series for Shaw and unofficial sequels for other companies including rival Golden Harvest who poached Wang after he did RETURN OF THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN for Shaw (whereupon, Shaw replaced Wang with LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES' David Chiang for the "official" series). The film adds some vibrant bloodshed and severed limbs to the Shaws' production values – long before gore found its way into their horror output – and would also chart the direction of director Cheng Cheh's subsequent action films of stoic bonds of brotherhood and honor. At almost two hours, the film does spend an inordinate amount of time on Fang's personal relationships even though he is rather chaste with Xiao and wants absolutely nothing to do with Pei, and the English-dubbed version makes every bit of exposition seem that much more laborious, but the action sequences are thrilling even if they are not as well-photographed and edited as a Leone or Kurosawa set-piece. While the sword lock weapon is not quite as flamboyant as THE DRAGON MISSILE or the flying guillotine, Long-Armed Devil and Smiling Tiger are well-accessorized and more formidable in Mandarin than in English where it seems their evil laughter is just laughable even at their most sadistic. The cruelty of the villains more than makes up for Wang's hero who is rather sullen and so stoic that he only really comes to life when he's fighting.

Long unavailable in English-speaking countries, THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN received a DVD release in stateside from the Weinstein label Dragon Dynasty with an anamorphic transfer, Mandarin and English audio and some newly-produced extras. The film was remastered by Celestial Pictures when they acquired the Shaw library and released on DVD in 2005 with a Blu-ray following in 2012 from Intercontinental Video. 88 Films' 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray looks color and crisp but is obviously an older master than only looks superficially pleasing thanks to the pictorial beauty of the images but looking rather flat even in scenes photographed at wider focal lengths. It's a high bitrate, BD50 encode, so one assumes that the master as it is looks as good as it can on Blu-ray. Audio comes in a clean and strong Mandarin LPCM 2.0 mono track and a poorer quality English dub also in LPCM 2.0 that goes out of sync for about a minute late in the film (although it may have more to do with the English mix since the dialogue during this bit seems to match the lip movements while the effects seem a couple milliseconds off. Optional English subtitles are free of any obvious errors and demonstrate the extent to which the English dub was simplified.

Extras start off with a new audio commentary with Bey Logan – the Dragon Dynasty track was by David Chute and Andy Klein – who is most informative about the film's debt to the wuxia novels including narrative conventions and story elements in common with a specific tale, as well as the conventions of Cheng Cheh's film. Of the accusations made about the director's homosexuality, Logan does seem to reach to interpret certain elements common across his films towards that end such as women as both useless characters and as instigators (although that really is not anything specific to Cheh's brand of exploitation). He covers Wang's career, and in stating that Bruce Lee eclipsed him in the west, is of the opinion that Wang's films were more influential in Hong Kong, that Wang's films were more interesting for their contents rather than Lee's for his star power, and that Wang made better films as a director than Lee. He also provides the usual extensive trivia about the careers of various bit players and, among other things, that Pei-Shan Chang actually provided Wang's Mandarin dubbing voice in the film, and that Sir Run Run Shaw was constantly trying to innovate his productions with Japanese style and technology (noting the introduction of dolly moves into this film where once scenes were solely composed of static compositions and crosscutting). "Blade of Glory" (17:25), an interview with David West, covers a lot of the same ground, including Wang's leaving Shaw for Golden Harvest, the official and unofficial One-Armed Swordsman films, and also reading more overtly into the films as indicators of Cheh's homosexuality the protagonists' disinterest in women in favor of brotherhood. A four-page liner notes booklet titled “Armed and Dangerous” by Calum Waddell is provided that suggests beyond Xaio Man's assertion that revenge begets revenge and that Fang is doomed by his own subservience to a master to which he owes nothing more, there is a certain deployment in the film and others like of Confucian identity politics possibly in reaction to challenges to the established order in China during the sixties and seventies. The reversible cover features the much more striking original poster art on the inside (I am told that the default artwork is actually for RETURN OF THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN), but those who order directly from 88 Films for a limited time can get a slipcover another beautiful poster art image. (Eric Cotenas)