Saturday, June 16, 2012

THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967, Chang Cheh, Shaw Brothers)

Sorry for the brief hiatus.

Today's subject is an important film in the history of the kung fu film. If we were to single out one film as being the first "modern" kung fu film, this would be it. This is the film that first synthesized the disparate influences and forged the genre of the kung fu movie like the sword our hero wields. The script is pure wuxia; ripped right from the works of Jin Yong (RETURN OF THE CONDOR HEROES, to be specific), but it's merged with the explosive violence of Japanese samurai films, and filmed with the slick, set-bound professionalism of a film in the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system. This movie movie is where, for better or for worse, wuxia became wushu.

How ironic then that this film evokes endings? Tonally this films is more reminiscent of "end of the trail" Westerns like THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE or THE SHOOTIST. It's characters are world-weary, petulant, or damaged and the world of jiang hu they inhabit is presented as one in which decent people are destroyed in a never-ending series of feuds and sneak attacks. This film, unlike so many by its director Chang Cheh, is not built around the brotherhood of men-at-arms but the the strife of families caught up and destroyed in the martial world.

Let's star with the brick and mortar of the film: it looks gorgeous. This is an almost entirely set-bound film , even the externals are done on Shaw Brothers lots. Chang Cheh has total control over the look of the film and he rises to the challenge, crafting scenes on one impressive sound stage after another. This film has a graceful style that adds to the mythic power; it looks like a memory play.

This film also contains the first use of hand held camera in Hong Kong cinema history, and Cheh was very happy to try out his new toy. Just a fantastically well-made film all around.

The actors are serviceable: Wang Yu is a lot more interesting here than he usually is as an actor, both because the script contains built-in ambiguity as to his motives, and because he's called on to feel more than he would allow himself to in his later pictures. This is before he developed his screen persona fully as "stoic clever guy" and the scene where he discovers his injury is a highlight. Some of the supporting players are marvelous though: Angela Pan has a thankless role as Pei-er, the spoiled daughter of Wang Yu's teacher, who is responsible for the title character's condition. She's playing a truly spiteful character and she invests a lot into it. Her reaction to Wang Yu's disfigurement is pitch-perfect; she underplays the shock and terror and it becomes even more horrifying for the audience as a result.

There's going to be a lot more plot summary and discussion than is normal in these reviews, because I feel like this is one of the rare kung fu films that works for the same reasons good plays work: their construction. Be warned that from here forward the review contains heavy spoilers.

The film's plot is the story of conquering despair after being wounded: Fang Gang (Wang Yu) is the adopted son of a master swordsman Qi Ru Feng (Tien Feng). He became Feng's adopted son when his father, a servant of Feng's, courageously sacrificed his life to save Feng from a sneak attack. Fang Gang carries around his only inheritance; his father's shattered sword. The other students at the school, including Feng's daughter Pei-er, bull Fang Gang a bit though he is a brooding and melancholy personality who enjoys wearing his simple peasant's tunic a lot more than the swordsman's garb Feng purchased for him.

After a round of the usual bullying gets particularly nasty Fang Gang decides to leave the school at the same time Qi Ru Feng shares his intentions to retire and pass on the school to Fang with his wife. The other students of the school and Pei-er meet Gang at the forest outside the school to have a showdown, and when he tells them he's planned to leave it only enrages them further. After defeating the two male students at fencing, he easily defeats Pei-er with open hand fighting. When he reaches down to help her up, still laughing, she swings her sword at him, mad with anger and...

Everything up to and including this scene plays like epic tragedy, and if any of the main characters had known what the others were thinking it never would have happened. This stuff is hypnotically watchable: there's a ton of ambiguity in the dialogue and motivations that keeps the view mentally engaged, while the film is visually at it's sharpest. There's even some great mise-en-scene, the first shot of the scene where Gang loses his arm is a tree bough being hacked off with a sword.

Gang staggers away and the students stand by in shock and horror. The Master arrives, having decided to go out for a walk and clear his head and finds the severed arm of Gang and his students standing by it. They set off to find him, but by this time he's fallen in the boat of peasant girl making her way down a nearby river and when the trail ends at the water they fear the worst.

The second act of the film is where the sledgehammer of plot clocks in, and it's here that the film can start to lose it's pace supporting all the material that will go into its fabulous climax. As the peasant girl Xiaoman nurses Fang Gang back to health, and Qi Ru Feng plans his retirement ceremony by inviting all of his former students to return to his home for one last dinner, a powerful enemy of Feng's, Long Armed Devil (Yeung Chi-hing) has developed a plan to get revenge. Devil and his brother Smiling Tiger (Tang ti) have developed a sword lock that will neutralize the swordplay of Feng and his students. They ambush his students, one by one and defeat a number of them in secret, all in preparation for a final attack on Feng on the night of his retirement.

Meanwhile, Gang is just beginning to move past the shock of his injury and accept love and rural life with Xiaoman when two of Smiling Tiger's pupils stroll by and harass her. When he comes to her defense, they humiliate him and threaten to take his other hand until Smiling Tiger himself arrives and sends them home. This episode throws Gang into total despair, and his self pity threatens to consume him. He can no longer defend himself and the woman that he loves, and therefore by his own standard, he is no longer a man.

At this point, Xioaman reveals her past, complete with a parallel primal tragedy to Fang Gang's, and presents him with her father's kung fu manual, for which he gave up his life. The book is half burnt, but through study, Gang returns to something of his former prowess. He even regains his mastery in swordplay, but due to his injury he finds that he can no longer use his master's sword, which is too ungainly, but instead must use his father's shattered half-sword. And so a one armed man becomes a fighting force again from a burnt and tattered book and a shattered sword.

The two plot lines converge, finally, at a town festival when Gang defeats the two men who humiliated him earlier. When he sees their master leave with Pei-er, he has a bad feeling and decides to investigate. Xiaoman has been pleading since she gave him the manual for him to stay out of the martial world, both out of a fear that he will leave her and that he will be killed, and her fears are seemingly confirmed when he rushes off to save his Master's daughter.

All of this leads to a breathless final half hour, where all the tension and power of the film's expertly laid plots and sub-plots detonates across the screen. The last half hour contains three brilliant actions set pieces, including what may very well be the best roadside tea house sequence in the history of the genre (and I just watched COME DRINK WITH ME). Fang Gang rescues Pei-er, rebukes her, returns to Xiaoman, but is drawn back into the martial world for a final show down with Long Armed Devil and his men when he learns their plot. I spoil nothing of what follows. See this film: every moment from the opening shot to the final grim irony is the work of a master.

COOLEST MOMENTS (I didn't get to):

- "You mocked me because I was maimed. Now you know that pain."
- The look Fang Gang gives the spear through his sleeve at the end. Just masterful.


Vitaly Taratut said...

A lot more then just A MA film. This film is like an Asian Shakespearean play, with epic scenery, characters, and symbolism. I despise the term MA film because MA films depict such a wide range cinematicly. This film is as different from another MA film as Casablanca is from "Lord of the Rings". While the kung fu in this movie is so masterful it cannot be denied that it is a MA film, it is a lot more then that.

Tom Pescatore said...

your hiatus is forgiven (also follow my blooooooooog dawg) you've saved me from having to read more DC comics. I thank you for that

W.K.M. said...

I'm glad that you despise the term "martial arts film" Vitaly, especially since it's what my blog is predicated on.