The Left-Handed Sword
Slenderly built like nobody's business, boyish, charming but aggressively astute, Bruce Lee put martial arts films on the world's consciousness map. Following the star's death and the shameless release of his half-finished work, Hong Kong producer-businessmen like brothers Run Run and Runme Shaw, former champions no longer near middleweight form like Chuck Norris and, of more recent vintage, martial arts comic Jackie Chan, have made their money, won a battle, but lost the war.
Showcasing a hodgepodge of recognized and hybrid martial arts, the Asian action movie has deteriorated since the mid-to-late '70s. Obviously finding some profit here, genre imports from the Far East are cartoonish, without benefit of self-awareness to realize they are parodies of parodies: tired cowboy plots, sound booms from sonic fists and feet, outlandish leaps, bad acting and dubbing.
The same holds true for US big-budget actioners, where most every actor shy of sixty runs up walls and across ceilings, has lethally speedy hands and boots and spins through acrobatics for breakfast. Beyond me how anyone can keep a straight face as slimmer but hardly buff Drew Barrymore and company leap, somersault, pirouette, fly and, incidentally, lay out villains. Camp, maybe, but folks out there actually take this stuff as serious entertainment.
Recently deceased Zhang Che's One-Armed Swordsman [Dubi dao] is a welcome relief from such nonsense. While hardly high art or the "riveting revenge thriller" advertised, it has the advantage of being shot in 1967, before tastes in martial arts cinema solidified to be set in concrete. It is, in fact, a transition piece and thus of historical interest, as well, a bridge from earlier samurai swordplay of wuxia [martial chivalry] to the kung fu [unarmed combat] genre and on to '90s gunplay-weaponry variants like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Although its unchanging baddies chortle hammily with evil joy and farm girls are impeccably coiffured, decked out and made up, Zang's Swordsman does offer up a number of unusual, and intelligent, qualities. For starters, there is an at least implied social awareness: hero Fang Gang (Jimmy Wang Yu), son of a lowly servant who died defending master/Teacher Ru-feng, has in gratitude been raised and taught the fighting arts but is jeered at by foppish students at a snobby academy.
Teacher's willful daughter Qi Pei (Qiao Qiao) lusts after him but is rebuffed. As he leaves to avoid scandal, she treacherously cuts off his right, sword arm. The dying man wanders into a snowstorm, falls from a bridge, is rescued and nursed to health by sensitive farmer woman Xiao Man. An orphaned pacifist whose own father died by the sword like Fang's, the adoring woman beholds his frustration as a "useless cripple" and so reveals to him her father's wonderful manual that, with hard work, will teach him one-armed proficiency. Meanwhile, in this rural area of roving bandits, freelance toughs and rival aristocratic gangs, Teacher's enemies plot revenge, spy and invent an unsportsmanlike sword-lock weapon that effectively counters the sixty-four moves of his traditional golden swords. Xiao pouts, but bullying and the deaths of friends draw her man back into the warrior world, if only briefly, where his dead father's shorter, broken-bladed sword proves its mettle.
Along with its picture of social stratification, the film also touches on attitude, noble forgiveness and the contrary attractions of, on the one hand, fame in the fast lane as against, on the other, the peace of bucolic existence. Moral debts repaid, evil dispatched, the hero must recognize his place in the scheme of things and make his lifelong choices.
Rough patches there are, and a share of ham-handedness, but Wang Yu in particular is an unusually sensitive actor for this genre. His missing limb artfully concealed in loose homespun peasant shirts, he conveys dignity and thoughtfulness in choosing between two women, two lifestyles.
Wuxia fiction has long been popular in China, and the loss of a hero's arm is adapted from The Eagle Lovers of Jin Yong. History, sources and genre aside, the film is a couple of notches above many other imported and domestic actioners. This is a good choice for the single press screening-limited by scheduling conflicts with Toronto-- for "Heroic Grace: The Chinese Martial Arts Film," nineteen pieces selected by UCLA's Film and Television Archive and showing June 27 through July 10 (2003) at Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater.
(Released by Shaw Brothers; not rated by MPAA.)