|After starring in a host of movies including two successful One-Armed Swordsman films and his hit directorial debut, The Chinese Boxer, Jimmy Wang Yu bolted Shaw Brothers for greener pastures. Unfortunately, due to the fact that he broke his contract, Wang Yu was effectively banned from making films in Hong Kong. In Taiwan, he set up shop with rival Golden Harvest, and debuted a new, albeit familiar character, The One Armed Boxer (1971), who proved to be just as popular as his sword-wielding predecessor. That very same year, the Shaw Brothers decided to relaunch the One-Armed Swordsman franchise and recast the lead role with a new actor, David Chiang. The resultant film shares no continuity with the original, aside from the fact that the new protagonist is missing a very important appendage while still being amazingly adept with the sword.
Although original director Chang Cheh is still at the helm, New One-Armed Swordsman differs from its predecessor in at least two distinct ways apart from the obvious change in actor. Whereas the first film was implicitly about finding personal fulfillment in the face of a life-changing disability and the second was about trying to be a hero in decidedly un-heroic times, the third installment is more or less a straight-ahead revenge flick, albeit one in which the protagonist must first learn a lesson in humility. On that note, the second major difference is characterization; David Chiang’s character is by no means a carbon copy of Wang Yu’s with a simple name change. While Wang's Fang Gang was humble to a fault, Chiang’s Lei Li is a tad on the arrogant side. And that arrogance is the cause of his initial downfall.
When the film starts, we are introduced to Lei Li, master of the Twin Swords, who brandishes both a long and short blade when in battle. Unfortunately, his prowess wielding his twin swords - not to mention his overblown self-confidence - sparks the ire of the megalomaniacal Lung Er-Zi (Guk Fung), a kung fu master who likes more than anything to set up situations in which he can play the hero, even though he’s an irredeemable scoundrel at heart. It seems Lung has developed the perfect weapon to counter-attack Lei Li’s twin blades - a three-sectioned staff. Soon enough, Lung frames Lei Li for a robbery and then “coincidentally” happens upon the scene and tricks Lei into not only dueling with him, but actually committing to some pretty high stakes. If Lei loses the bout, he has to cut off his arm and retire from the martial world. As you might have guessed from the title, things don’t go all that well for our hero.
The film then picks up some time afterward with the now permanently disabled Lei Li working as a waiter at a small country inn. He’s dressed in black (as if he stole Wang Yu’s wardrobe) and doesn’t say much, but when nobody’s looking he can do tricks with his left hand that would put Tom Cruise’s drink-juggling character in Cocktail to shame. Sticking to his vow to never fight again gets a lot harder when he falls for the innkeeper’s daughter, Ba Jiao (Li Ching). While he can endure the bullying that he encounters on a daily basis from patrons at the inn, it’s an entirely different story when some local thugs try to have their way with Ba Jiao. Torn between honoring his word and the woman he loves, Lei Li ends up punching some stone steps in frustration. Lucky for him (and Ba Jiao) that another swordsman just so happens to be on hand to save the day.
That hero turns out to be a skilled martial artist named Fung (Ti Lung), who coincidentally is also a master of the twin swords. Although he immediately intuits that Lei Li is hiding his skills as a martial artist, he can’t figure out why. A curious Fung pursues Lei Li until he finally discovers the man’s true identity. What ensues is perhaps one of the most blatantly homoerotic instances of male bonding in a mainstream martial arts crowd-pleaser. The characters commiserate with one another in a fashion that seems more romantic than brotherly. It also doesn’t help that director Chang Cheh includes several extended close-ups of the two men sharing longing, even loving gazes. I daresay that a modern audience would be hard-pressed to stifle the giggles. The capper to this gay subtext is undoubtedly the moment when an admiring Fung says that he’s considering retiring from the martial world and proposes that he and Lei Li live together and become farmers. At this point, Ba Jiao’s inclusion in this trio is clearly a polite afterthought.
Of course, this happy threesome doesn’t last long, as Fung blindly ventures off to Tiger Mansion to meet Lung Er-Zi and certain doom. As we already know, two swords will be no match for Lung’s three-sectioned staff, a fact that the heroic Fung learns in brutal, gory detail. The unjust fate of his beloved friend ultimately awakens Lei Li to the villain’s true motives and drives him over the edge. Unlike Jimmy Wang Yu’s one armed hero, Lei Li has already mastered the sword with his left hand, so there’s no need for a training montage. The man is ready for some action. What follows is an ending sequence in which a lone hero slashes his way through an armada of enemies. It’s the type of set piece we’ve seen many times hence in films from around the world, but there’s a mythic simplicity to New One-Armed Swordsman’s impressively staged finale that makes the whole thing surprisingly compelling to watch.
As the third installment of the series, New One-Armed Swordsman is a worthy, if not quite as entertaining reboot of the franchise. No official sequels followed, although David Chiang and Wang Yu later teamed up for an unrelated Taiwanese production entitled, One-Armed Swordsmen. In the end, what separates this film from its predecessors isn’t so much the difference in cast or character, it’s how the relationship between the two swordsmen is portrayed. The “male bonding” on display here is an element that was pretty much unexplored in the previous films, and both David Chiang and Ti Lung possess an undeniable chemistry with one another, not to mention each of them having an palpable screen presence.
The gay subtext is fairly surprising, but it actually adds another layer of entertainment to an otherwise straightforward revenge film. It certainly allows you to read certain scenes in a different light. In the first two movies, Fang Gang lost his good arm and couldn’t defend himself nor his love interest; thus, learning about one-armed swordsmanship was essential for him to regain his confidence and sense of self-respect. But Lei Li faces a very different dilemma - he CAN fight, but simply chooses not to do so. Thus, when Ba Chiao is accosted by local thugs, his decision not to intervene in her potential rape is just that - a decision, and a baffling one at that. But seen in that light, Lei Li’s eventual decision to break his vow of pacifism to avenge Fung speaks volumes for the importance put on that male-male relationship over his de facto heterosexual coupling with Ba Chiao. And in many ways, it’s this thinly-veiled homoerotism, along with story of empowerment for a disabled protagonist, that separates New One-Armed Swordsman from your typical slicing-and-dicing wuxia action movie fare.
(Calvin McMillin 2008)