Return of the One-Armed Swordsman
AKA: The One Armed Swordsman Returns
Year of release: 1969
Genre: martial arts
Director: Chang Cheh
Action directors: Tong Gai, Lau Kar-Leung
Producer: Runme Shaw
Writer: Chang Cheh
Cinematography: Kung Mu-To
Editor: Chiang Hsing-Lung
Music: Wang Fu-Ling
Stars: Jimmy Wang Yu, Chiao Chiao, Essie Lin, Cheng Lui, Chung Wa, Ku Feng, Wu Ma, Lau Kar-Leung, Ti Lung, Tien Feng, Hoh Ban, Yuen Cheung-Yan, Lau Kar-Wing
Not rated; contains IIB-level violence
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As the follow-up to one of the most influential kung fu films of all time, director Chang Cheh had a hard row to hoe with crafting Return of the One-Armed Swordsman. But Chang was up to the task, accomplishing what so many sequels before and since fail to do -- creating a movie that not only matches the original product, but surpasses it in almost every way.
When the movie starts, we meet back up with Fang Gang (Jimmy Wang Yu), who has forsaken the violent world of swordplay to settle down at a farm with his wife, Xiao (Chiao Chiao). Fang's peace is soon disrupted by a pair of mysterious couriers who give him an invitation to appear in a tournament to crown the new "Sword King". Initially, Fang refuses, but after it becomes clear that the tournament is merely a guise for a group of villains to take out the noble clans in the area, he decides to bring his sword out of retirement.
While the story really wasn't anything new at the time, and is definitely well-worn territory by now, that is actually one of Return of the One-Armed Swordsman's biggest strengths. Especially when compared with many modern kung fu pictures, which pack in plots that are too dense for their own good, the simpler approach employed here allows Chang to concentrate on what really matters: the characters and the various martial arts styles they use.
And what a cast of characters it is. Of course, Fang Gang is the nearly-silent bad-ass you would expect, while his wife transcends the usual "jade vase" delegation female roles get in these types of pictures and is a strong counterpart. Speaking of strong women, Essie Lin's take on the character of Hua Niangzi created the template of a femme fatale assassin dozens of later productions would use. She's a joy to watch and has some of the best scenes in the movie -- but the rest of the villains (including ones played by old-school legends Lau Kar-Wing and Tien Feng) are no slouches, either.
Return of the One-Armed Swordsman has long been known has having some of the best and most violent fight scenes in an old-school kung fu film. Helmed by Tong Gai and Lau Kar-Leung, the fights feature a wonderful variety of weapons and styles that are punctuated by a healthy dose of claret. On the surface, things might look simple, but on closer inspection, one can clearly see just how much raw natural talent the performers had here. There's no special effects other than a few wire assists and backwards filming, resulting in the fights having a hard-hitting and realistic feeling that's sadly missing from the majority of modern action cinema.
There are some small problems present in Return of the One-Armed Swordsman. The pacing in the exposition scenes is a bit slow, some of the acting from the supporting actors is a bit wooden, and the blood and gore effects don't look all that great, due to the cheap Shaw Brothers makeup effects. But those slightly sub-par elements shouldn't stop you from checking out this movie. Even though it is now over forty years old, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman is still tremendously exciting fare and well-deserving of its' place in the upper echelon of martial arts films.
This movie is available on DVD in North America from Dragon Dynasty. For more information on their latest releases, please visit their page on Twitter.