Tuesday, 15 July 2008

One-Armed Swordsman (Dubei Dao, 1967)

What a way to die - killed by the Mod Squad on an unrealistic snowy set.

Shaw Brothers classics appeal to me for much the same reasons as the early Hammer films. They're snappy, aggressively unpretentious, corny but strongly felt, and put together with colour and verve. One-Armed Swordsman is gorgeous in its bold cinematography and set-bound stylisation. The legendary Yu Wang plays our hero, Fang Gang, a servant's son who is trained by a martial arts master, Qi (Feng Tien), as a gesture towards his father who died protecting Qi's school. His prowess irritates the snottier sons of the gentry who learn at the school, and Qi's daughter Pei Er (Yin Tze Pan) has a thing for him that, being as she is a bitch, expresses itself in aggression. When she and some lads gang up on him, she accidentally-on-purpose cuts off his arm when he's not on his guard, and he stumbles away into the snow to die.
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Pei Er is upset that Gang doesn't find her as irresistably cute in this ensemble as the other boys.
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But he's rescued by good honest peasant girl Man (Chiao Chiao) - who happens herself to be the exiled daughter of a martial arts master who wrote a book that contains techniques for fighting with the left hand...Before you can say "obvious plot device" our Gang goes from having bullies kick sand in his face to breaking rocks and splitting trees with his new skills.
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Like many an adolescent boy before him, Gang realises the awesome potential of the left hand.
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Meanwhile, one of Master Qi's old enemies, Long Arm, an expert in martial arts and the tradition of the contemptuous villain's laugh, returns to the area looking for vengeance for his defeat years before in a duel, and he's equipped his students with a sneaky new device that immobilizes Qi's school's strictly right-handed fighting technique. Sounds like a job for the kick-ass guy with a good left hand!
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Gang does battle with Long Arm's best student, Smiling Face.
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The solid, simplistic storyline is beautifully coherent and Wang has a boatload of charisma even in playing a dour character. The special effects are amusing in their low-tech pizzazz, and the choreography of the fight scenes not, thankfully, excessively stylised or over-stretched, and so they still look like actual, physical brawls rather than Breakdance battles, as they would by the early '80s.
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Master Qi battles two of Long Arm's henchmen whilst Long Arm himself (in centre, wearing blue), prepares to laugh in contempt again.

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