One-Armed Swordsman (1967) is often considered the first true modern martial arts movie, featuring a brooding anti-hero and adopting a gritty look with lots of blood, ushering in gorier movies of its kind. It was a huge hit, reaching the milestone of being the first Hong Kong movie to make HK$1 million at the local box office and transforming its lead actor Jimmy Wang into a major movie star.
As a young boy, Fang Kang watches his father die a heroic death defending his mentor Qi Ru Feng (Tien Feng) from a pack of bandits. With his dying breath, he asks Qi to take his son on as a pupil. He agrees and Fang (Wang) grows up determined to live up to the memory of his father, even keeping the broken sword that he used in his last battle in his honor.
One day, two students from wealthy families and Qi’s spoiled daughter Qi Pei Er (Angela Pan) ridicule Fang because of his poor background. After Qi chastises them for their behavior, Fang decides to leave rather than cause trouble, but he’s ambushed by Pei Er and the two other students. In a moment of treachery, she cuts off his sword arm! The betrayal scene is shot on a beautiful, snowbound set with a multitude of flakes falling down around the characters in stark contrast to the cruelty on display.
Fang flees and eventually passes out due to blood loss. He’s rescued by Xiao Man (Lisa Chiao Chiao), a peasant girl that nurses him back to health. She encourages him to relearn how to fight with his other arm and he becomes a formidable martial artist. Meanwhile, Qi’s old foes, Long-Armed Devil (Yeung Chi-hing) and Smiling Tiger Cheng (Tang Ti), are eliminating his students with the help of the “sword lock,” a weapon that allows them to hold their opponent’s sword at bay while they stab or slash them with a short sword. Fang catches wind of what’s going on and puts his newfound skills to good and bloody use.
Fang is a tragic character that loses his father at an early age and then loses the ability to do the only thing he was good at doing. As a result, he loses his purpose in life. It is only Xian Man’s belief in him, and the love that develops between them, that re-engages him with life again. Her father also died tragically and this heartbreak at an early age bonds these two characters in a profound way. Xian Man is a fascinating character in her own right. She saves Fang twice – physically by getting him medical attention before he bled out and spiritually by not only giving him purpose in his life but also inspiring him to love her.
At the end of One-Armed Swordsman, Fang learns an important lesson in life – that being a simple peasant is just as worthy an existence as a master swordsman. Most importantly, he comes to this decision on his own terms after paying back his debt to his mentor.
Director Chang Cheh got the idea for One-Armed Swordsman and picked Jimmy Wang as he felt that the character had a personality similar to the actor. They had worked together before and he asked Jimmy to be in it. The actor found filming to be challenging as he was right-handed and had to learn how to fight with his left. His right arm was tied down and he often lost his balance during fight scenes. Jimmy also had to learn how to fight with a short sword and was hit often as a result. His arm was covered in bruises, as was his face from falling down.
The phenomenal success of One-Armed Swordsman spawned two sequels – Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1969) and The New One-Armed Swordsman (1971) – and countless imitators but none of them reached the operatic heights of the original.
“Interview with Star Jimmy Wang Yu.” The One-Armed Swordsman DVD. Dragon Dynasty. 2007.