Before Bruce Lee became a worldwide icon, there was Jimmy Wang Yu. Previously a starring player at the famous Shaw Brothers Studio, Yu decamped to the new competitor Golden Harvest and released a series of rough and ready pictures which he wrote, directed, and played the lead role. What they lack in finesse – some would say competence – they make up for in sheer energy and momentum. One-Armed Boxer is the first of Yu’s films for the new studio, and is non-stop action, in all the best and worst ways.
Yu Tian Long (Wang Yu) is one of the star pupils at the Zhengde school of martial arts, and sparks a war with the criminal Hook Gang after he defends an old man being targeted in a tea house. After a number of humiliations visited against the racketeering Hooks, their leader Master Shao (Yeh Tien) assembles a multi-disciplinary band of mercenaries. Coming from various avenues of the martial arts path, this colourful bunch descend on the academy and slaughter everyone, with the exception of Yu Tian, who escapes with a severed arm. Nursed back to health by an elderly healer and his pretty daughter, he learns the ‘crippled-fist’ technique before seeking his revenge on the mercenaries.
Yu’s previous films had included One-Armed Swordsman and Chinese Boxer, so originality isn’t high on the agenda. What does set this frequently ludicrous film apart is the nefarious gang of mercenaries bringing variety to otherwise one-note villainy. There are Okinawan karate masters (the leader of which sports a natty pair of vampire fangs), Thai kickboxers, Tibetan lamas, a Korean Taekwondo expert, a Judo champion, and an Indian yogi (played by a Chinese actor in jaw-droppingly ill-advised blackface, and it is only his face). All get to strut their dangerous stuff as they take apart the academy. The fights themselves are choppily edited and replete in the most exaggerated sound effects – each punch lands with a thunderous whip-crack, with volume standing in for accuracy. But there is definitely quantity, if not quality, and worth it for the yogi’s dance on his hands, and the hilarious severing of Yu Tian’s arm.
The second half of the film deals with Tian Long’s recovery and revenge. This recovery involves repeatedly thrusting his hand into burning coals to kill the nerve endings and then repeatedly dropping a millstone on the singed appendage to toughen it up; because, as any butcher will tell you, repeatedly hitting a lump of meat with a heavy implement will make it properly chewy. One can also question the wisdom in self-administering what approximates to highly-localised leprosy in your remaining arm, but good sense and realism had already been hoofed in the knackers until their eyes popped out long before. There is also a highly amusing courtship with the healer’s daughter, dealt with in 15 seconds of still frames, because who wants to waste good film on mushy shit when you get back to some manly masochism?
It’s easy to scoff (and admittedly rather fun), but there is an earnestness and conviction that makes One-Armed Swordsman a delight to watch, even if it is probably not in the way Wang Yu intended. Not a trained martial artist, he adopts a lot of visual trickery to cover the cracks such as twitchy edits, body doubles and skipped frames, and as such is something of a pioneer in his DIY approach. It won’t appear high on the lists of most kung fu purists, but it certainly has its own brash, lopsided personality that is highly appealing. You’ve also got to love a filmmaker who will flat out steal the theme from Shaft; a case of the East raiding pop-culture from the West long before Tarantino thought about pilfering in the other direction.
Available on Blu-ray now