Released in 1967, One Armed Swordsman made an incredible impact on Hong Kong cinema, establishing a whole new style for wuxia movies and catapulting young Shaw Brothers actor Jimmy Wang Yu into martial arts superstardom. With the film raking in the cash at the local box office, it was perhaps a foregone conclusion that Wang Yu’s iconic hero would return. And just two years later, Return of the One Armed Swordsman made its way to theaters.
Chang Cheh, the director at the helm of this rollicking follow-up, clearly subscribed to the “more is more” philosophy of sequel-making. This film boasts more villains, more weapons, more fighting, and more over-the-top action than its predecessor. The storyline isn’t quite as compelling nor as personal as the one depicted in the original, but thanks to a solid performance from Jimmy Wang Yu and a surprisingly explicit critique of Jiang Hu, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman avoids the trap of simply being just another empty, overblown action extravaganza, and results in an impressive work in its own right.
In the original film, the one-armed hero Fang Gang (Jimmy Wang Yu) saved his master from certain doom, but rather than rejoin his comrades, he decided to return to his beloved wife, Hsiao Man (Chiao Chiao) and live out the rest of his days as a humble farmer. Of course, for a sequel to work, this idyllic dream could not last. After two years of retirement (mirroring the two years in real time since the original film), Fang is approached by the peculiar-looking Black and White Swordsmen (Fong Yau and Wu Ma), who invite him (and other clan leaders around the area) to attend a martial arts contest held at their clan’s fortress.
But this is no friendly competition - it’s an execution! Those who accept the invitation are walking into a trap while those who decline will be summarily killed for their insolence. With the leaders gone, the remaining students and their respective clans would be ripe for the taking. By whom? It seems that a power-hungry group of martial artists known as the Eight Kings have emerged during Fang Gang’s self-imposed exile, and they are dastardly fellows to say the least.
Fang Gang turns down the Eight Kings’ offer as well as a friendly clansman’s plea for assistance in putting a stop to the bad guys’ deadly machinations. Fang just isn’t interested. He’s made a promise to his wife to retire, and he intends to keep it. While Fang Gang survives his encounter with the Black and White Swordsmen, the clan leaders aren’t so lucky, and those who don’t get wiped out are taken hostage. To make matters worse, the Eight Kings declare that the only way the clan leaders will be released is if the surviving disciples all cut off their right arms! The students don’t have an earthly clue about what to do, so they turn to Fang Gang for help. Once again, Fang Gang declines - but it isn’t long before he's convinced otherwise.
What ensues is what I can only call the film version of a beat ‘em up video game - albeit long before such video games even existed. Fang Gang and his merry men make their way across the Chinese countryside, taking on the Eight Kings one-by-one in successive and increasingly difficult “boss battles”. There are loads of villains for Fang to tangle with along the way, and each possesses a unique skill. The most interesting of these baddies is perhaps the alluring Thousand Hands (Essie Lin Chia), a beautiful woman who uses her feminine charms for deadly purposes. Brandishing her sexuality as a weapon, Thousand Hands brutally kills some of the hard-up young clansmen (including a babyfaced Ti Lung) before Fang Gang finally intervenes.
In comparison to the first film, the action in the sequel is ramped up considerably. There’s a nifty fight between Jimmy Wang Yu and Lau Kar-Leung midway through, and an enthralling final fight that feels like a Spaghetti Western, a samurai film, and an old school wuxia flick all wrapped up into one. There’s crazy (and visible) wirework, ample use of trampolines, and a bamboo forest fight where Jimmy Wang Yu flies in the air, spinning like a pinwheel. The wire-fu on display here is so ridiculously over the top, that it will either lose you as a viewer or make you love the film all that much more.
But it’s not all hacking and slashing; there are also some interesting stylistic choices from director Chang Cheh. Rather than resort to a static point-and-shoot style of filmmaking as some earlier Shaw directors did, Chang utilizes some dramatic camera movement and reframing at crucial points in the narrative. There are also some telling juxtapositions. For example, there’s a scene in which Fang Gang fantasizes about frolicking in a field with his wife and future child. The whole scene is shot in super slo-mo, and is cheesy and clichéd as hell, but what’s interesting is how Chang ends the sequence: there’s a shot of the adorable baby, and then a smash cut to a man stabbed by a sword and screaming in pain. It’s a jarring counterpoint that seems to work with the films underlying themes about violence and heroism.
Once again, Jimmy Wang Yu delivers a fine performance as the grizzled swordsman. He is so magnetic and mesmerizing that you might never guess that he wasn’t a trained martial artist in real life. But what’s most fascinating here is what Chang Cheh does with the character. At one point in the film, Fang Gang is awarded the title of Sword King, complete with a medal. Humble to a fault, Fang grudgingly accepts the honor. But all along, the film has been questioning, “What is a hero? Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys?” The first hint of this concern occurs when one of the “good guys” abducts Hsiao Man as a way to blackmail Fang Gang into helping their cause. Are these really heroes or just stupid kids?
There are other similar moments sprinkled throughout the film, but the most telling occurs at the end, after (SPOILER ALERT!) the evil-doers have been vanquished. When the old clansmen are finally released from their cages they proceed to pounce on the lifeless body of their nemesis like rabid dogs tearing at a carcass. What occurs next is a total indictment of the world of Jiang Hu, as Fang tosses his medal to the ground and laments, “For this vain title, how many lives have been sacrificed?” Clearly, this isn’t just a mindless action flick.
Return of the One Armed Swordsman may lack the simple charm of the original, but with its emphasis on over-the-top action, wild characters, and visually iconic showdowns, it’s certainly one hell of an entertaining ride. In the end, Chang Cheh has it both ways, as he simultaneously deconstructs the wuxia genre, while at the same time amplifying its mythic qualities even more through the character of the humble One-Armed Swordsman. (Calvin McMillin 2008)