Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Use of a Sword

Losing an arm may seem like a disadvantage for a swordsman but it's a lot more than that in the 1967 wuxia classic One-Armed Swordsman (独臂刀). It's a really strange story in several ways with striking psychological subtext. It also has a beautiful, unapologetically artificial sound stage aesthetic.

Fang Kang (Jimmy Wang) is the star pupil of Qi Ru Feng (Tien Feng), head of the Golden Sword school, so named for the distinctive golden swords used by Qi and his students. Fang Kang is the son of a man we see killed while defending Qi in the opening scene. The dead man leaves behind a broken sword which Fang Kang holds onto, dreaming of one day taking revenge.

So we begin with some potent symbols of damaged masculinity--a dead father and a broken sword, the classic phallic symbol cut in half.

Qi's daughter, Pei (Angela Pan), has a crush on Fang Wang which manifests in her taunting him with his being born of a lower social class and she imposes on his respect for her father by commanding him to chop firewood like a servant. Two other students, jealous of Fang Kang, team up with Pei in bullying him, the episodes reaching a climax when the two students and Pei challenge Fang Kang to meet them for a battle in the woods.

Fang Kang has already decided to leave because he fears being low born will cause trouble for Qi. But like a good, reluctant hero, though he tries to avoid fighting Pei and the students, they force him into it. He easily beats the two men and then, because he's afraid of hurting Pei even on accident, he fights her bare handed, also defeating her easily. Then things get really interesting--she cuts off his arm.

So Fang Kang is running through the woods, maybe bleeding to death--Pei and the students don't know how to react, Qi shows up and sees the arm and puts two and two together. They never catch up with Fang Kang who ends up finding solace with an orphaned farmgirl named Xiao Man (Lisa Chiao Chiao) who nurses him to health and even has a handy book for training in left handed martial arts.

Already Fang Kang is symbolically emasculated with his broken sword, then a woman cuts off his arm and he's saved by another woman. Yet he's an exceptionally skilled martial artist, his talents becoming even more useful when his one-armed technique turns out to be perfect for combating a new weapon crafted by Qi's arch enemy. As Xiao Man encourages him to forsake fighting and be a farmer with her, the story has the standard theme of a legendary fighter being compelled against his will to go back to a life of killing, but with all this subtext added on it makes the world of martial arts itself seem imperilled. Qi, Fang Kang's master, was saved in the opening scene by one of his students and Qi's enemy uses a weapon that pulls a sword from an opponent's grasp, a trick that is arguably more of a cheat than an actual fighting technique.

The concepts of honour and achievement in the world of martial arts are constantly disrupted with the most skilled practitioner a mutilated man seeking to abandon the artform. In a way, one could see this as an ancestor of the recent South Korean film, High Heel, about a skilled transwoman police detective who's prevented from transitioning by a life of violence that continually pulls her back in. In One-Armed Swordsman there's a simultaneous sense of the feminine being in healthy opposition to a life of violence while also being frustrating for it at the same time--because violence in an action movie is obviously central to the appeal and the catharsis.

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