Jimmy Wang (aka Jimmy Wang Yu) is best known as the box-office megastar who paved the way for Bruce Lee.
No, wait.. he’s best known as an invincible one-armed superman. No.. wait.. he’s best known for a 1981 murder charge, for publicly humiliating his cheating wife, for being an asshole to EVERYONE on the set of THE MAN FROM HONG KONG or for being banned from making films in Hong Kong.
What I mean is that the man has lived a fascinating, though incredibly controversial, life. But for a time in the late 60s, he was absolutely untouchable.
In fact, Jimmy is the epitome of movie magic. Not only did he find his initial greatest success playing a one-armed swordsman in the aptly named THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, despite obviously having two arms, but he was a martial arts star despite having no martial arts training. And, unlike Leung Kar-yan, he wasn’t particularly good at covering this fact, and didn’t need to! Again, this is the pre-Bruce Lee era where, in the wake of COME DRINK WITH ME, filmmakers were starting to get a bit more experimental with filmmaking techniques and editing – and where some clever cutting and stoic charisma could make up for any fighting deficiencies. You didn’t need to believe that the guy you’re watching could kick everyone’s ass – it’s right up there on the screen!
THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN was a huge hit, but aside from the machismo and bloodshed that would become director Chang Cheh’s trademark, it’s mainly memorable for eclipsing the era of female dominance in martial arts cinema. From here on in, kung-fu and swordplay films would overwhelmingly feature male actors in the lead. Wang would follow his huge success with THE CHINESE BOXER, which would prove to be an ever bigger success, and incredibly influential in kick-starting the popularity of unarmed combat films. The Shaw Brothers films of the late 60s focused heavily on weaponry, but THE CHINESE BOXER revolutionized the genre, paving the way for a whole new kind of action star.
Then came Bruce Lee.
Bruce’s style was so kinetic and powerful – and obviously propelled by someone with some amazing abilities – that even a star of Wang’s magnitude couldn’t help but be a bit shaken by his success. Followed by controversy, particularly after breaking his contract with Shaw Brothers – leading to him eventually being banned from making films in Hong Kong – Wang’s career would never fully recover. He would end up making some serious dreck in the late 1970s and early 1980s – FANTASY MISSION FORCE, anyone? – but still pops up from time to time in productions.
Oh, but let’s go back to the beginning.
THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN begins with a flashback, where the GOLDEN SWORD SCHOOL is being raided by a group of bandits. Recognizing that his master could be overwhelmed by the attack, servant Fang Cheng fights off the attack single-handedly, but is killed in the process. Master Qi Ru Feng (Tien Feng) agrees to take on Cheng’s son as his pupil, and raise him within the school as if he was his own relation. And everything works out just peachy.
Wait. No. In fact, now grown, Fang Kang (Jimmy Wang) becomes an object of constant ridicule because of his servant background. He’s insulted, embarrassed, and just generally abused by his classmates. Really, Qi Ru Feng should have laid down the hammer on these assholes, especially his daughter Pei-er (Pan Yin Tze) who is just a horrible bitch. How horrible? Well, Fang Kang decides to run away from the school, but is confronted by his classmates who, despite despising him, tell him he’s dishonoring their master by running away. There’s just no winning with this crew. Pei-er forces Fang Kang to fight her one-on-one, but he has some obviously superior skills. Embarrassed by her defeat, she grabs a sword AND CUTS HIS ARM OFF.
This reaction might have been slightly extreme. Master Feng shows up and sees the arm, and he gives a look of serious disapproval. Still, that seems like a rather restrained reaction considering his daughter CHOPPED OFF A GUY’S ARM FOR NO GOOD REASON. Fang Kang stumbled away (somehow) after all this, and while the group begins to look for him, he ends up taking a nosedive off a bridge onto a boat owned by Xiao Man (Chiao Chiao). She slowly nurses him back to health, but Kang remains in a really pissy mood. I guess having your arm lopped off and your livelihood robbed from you will do that to a guy. He learns to fish and helps out around the property, but without being able to wield a sword he’s a bit down in the dumps. In fact, he gets humiliated by two thugs who wander by the property, before they are called off by Master Smiling Tiger (Tong Dik). I wonder if that will come into play later? Perhaps!
Seeing that Kang feels empty without being able to wield that cold steel, Xiao Man reveals that before his death her father gave her a book of sword-fighting techniques. Unfortunately, the book was burned rather significantly, leaving only the fighting positions for the left-hand side of the body. Wait a moment! That would be perfect for a one-armed swordsman! Necessitating the use of a shorter blade, Kang uses the broken sword once wielded by his father as his weapon of choice, and throws himself fully into his new training. You’ve never seen a one-armed boy so happy.
With a new-found sense of purpose, Kang visits a local fair where he nearly runs into his former classmates, who are stupidly lured away by the devious Smiling Tiger. Despite Xiao Man’s jealous protestations, Kang decides to rescue his master’s daughter out of loyalty. He actually does it very effectively, even slicing off the arms of Smiling Tiger’s students – the same guys who pushed him around earlier – in the process, but Pei-er continues to be a stuck up twat until Kang makes it very clear that he has no romantic intentions with her. In fact, he thinks she’s kind of a bitch. Zing.
Now you have to understand that Xiao Man hates this solitary swordsman life, and desperately wants Fang Kang to abandon his violent lifestyle before he ends up dead just like, well, both of their fathers. Kang agrees, and they sell Xiao Man’s property and prepare to live a life of peace and quiet contemplation. At least, that’s the plan. Instead, Kang runs into one of Qi Ru Feng’s students on their way out of town and discovers that Smiling Tiger (along with Qi Ru Feng’s old nemesis Long Armed Devil (Yeung Chi-hing)) have been systematically murdering all of Feng’s old students using a weapon called a sword lock. Basically, it locks the group’s trademark golden sword, leaving them open to an attack from a shorter knife or sword. It’s really rather shockingly effective, and makes the Golden Sword technique seem a little.. weak.
This sends Fang Kang on one last mission of vengeance, and it is GLORIOUS. First he stops at a local inn to have a little talk with some of Long Armed Devil’s men and it’s like a scene straight out of a (awesome) samurai film. He stoically sits and drinks wine while eviscerating all of the men around him. Just another reminder that many of the very best scenes in the history of martial arts cinema – certainly starting with COME DRINK WITH ME – take place in an inn. Any skepticism about Jimmy Wang’s bad-ass credentials should be null and void after this scene.
So, Fang Kang gets delayed by Smiling Tiger while Long Armed Devil and his men confront Qi Ru Feng and his collection of former students, using their sword lock to murder the shit out of them. It’s not even close, really. Qi Ru Feng is about to give up his life when Kang – fresh off killing Smiling Tiger – shows up and decides to take out the trash. Long Armed Devil’s smirking men are quickly dispatched, before Kang takes on the Devil himself – who uses a collection of throwing spears as well as a bullwhip as weapons. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Fang Kang proves himself in front of his master, gets the girl, and walks off into the sunset.
While not quite as beautifully bloody as his later films, director Chang Cheh was still throwing down the gauntlet with the gore in THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN. This was a brutal world full of murder and dismemberment, and the red stuff flows consistently, particularly when Smiling Tiger and his men are dispatching scores of Qi Ru Feng’s students. While Cheh was never as concerned with visual artistry as King Hu, and this film feels much more stagebound than COME DRINK WITH ME, there’s a sense of power and masculinity that would become Chang Cheh’s calling card. The swordplay itself is nothing to write home about – the film is much more concerned with quick bursts of violence rather than elaborately choreographed sequences – though the staging of these scenes is still magnificent.
Wang would return to the role that made him famous in RETURN OF THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (also directed by Chang Cheh) in 1969, and after his controversial exit from the Shaw Brothers he would return to the role – or a variation thereof – several more times. First he reprised the character in the East meets East Japanese film ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN in 1971, where the blind swordsman Zatoichi meets the Chinese character that he very likely influenced. At the same time, the Shaw Brothers (and Chang Cheh) were revamping the whole concept with the great David Chiang as the lead in THE NEW ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN. This spurred Wang to direct his *own* variation on the concept with THE ONE-ARMED BOXER, and eventually both David Chiang and Jimmy Wang would team up in THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMEN in 1976. As well, Wang would appear as the character in the embarrassingly bad ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN vs. NINE KILLERS. Of course I also have to mention the wonderful MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE which has Jimmy Wang in his One-Armed Boxer guise, and he takes on the blind master of the titual device. The concept of a crippled martial arts hero would come to its natural (and disturbing peak) in the jaw-dropping CRIPPLED MASTERS, which features two (amazing) disabled actors in the lead.
In 1995 Tsui Hark re-envisioned the idea once againg in his film THE BLADE, and there have been constant rumblings of another revamp of the film in recent years – possibly starring Donnie Yen in the lead. The concept of a physically disabled hero overcoming his or her limitations has proven to be an enduring one, though Jimmy Wang’s success would not sustain quite so long. Driven from Hong Kong, his Taiwanese and International pictures would vary hugely in quality, and his reported ego and erratic behavior would destroy his reputation. However, none of that can take away from the fact that he was at one time the biggest martial arts star in the world, or that his films have influenced an entire generation of kung-fu and swordplay films – or that he helped create a character that has become legendary. Some parts of THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN may seem a bit hokey compared to the films that were to follow, but there are moments to amaze and astound even the most jaded kung-fu fan.