This article is one part film history, one part fight commentary. First of all, I’d like to outline some of the technical innovations in Hong Kong cinema during the period leading up to the mid-1960s. From there I’ll examine one of the great movie fights from Chang Cheh’s seminal swordplay film, One-Armed Swordsman. So let’s get to it, en garde and have at you!
At the close of the 1950s, three film studios – Shaw Brothers, Cathay Organization and MP & GI – were vying for control of the Hong Kong and Asian film market.
Under the guidance of Run Run Shaw, Shaw Brothers established itself as an innovative, technology led studio. Shaws were the first of the major studios to adopt colour photography across their productions. They also worked closely with foreign studios, collaborating on foreign productions and borrowing technology and equipment to stay ahead of their domestic competition. Shaws’ major innovation came toward the close of the fifties; they became the first Hong Kong studio to embrace widescreen photography, thus widening the gap between their productions and those of MP & GI and Cathay. Put simply, Shaw Brothers made films that looked like nothing else in Hong Kong at the time.
Shaw Brothers made the most technologically advanced films in Hong Kong and fostered the most talented filmmakers as well. One such director, Chang Cheh, paved the way for a new wave of action cinema that would become synonymous with Hong Kong for decades to come.
Chang Cheh was a veteran of the swordplay genre. As a young man he wrote wuxia (martial arts adventure) novels. He later worked as a screenwriter at Shaws on swordplay and kung fu movies before beginning his career as a director. Cheh became one of Shaws’ most prolific directors producing 60 features before his retirement in 1980. Like many directors of the time Cheh was influenced by the anamorphic techniques seen in Japanese cinema, however, his approach to filming action sequences was markedly different to that of his Japanese contemporaries.
We can attribute the differences in approach to the fact that although Shaws worked with Japanese directors on widescreen films they did not give wuxia projects to émigré directors. As a result the Hong Kong cinema developed a different style of filming widescreen swordplay and martial arts movies. Cheh’s work is exemplary and fundamental to this new wave of HK action films.
Cheh’s direction stresses momentum. He is interested in showcasing physical mastery through speedy movement and force. Opponents clash swords for extended periods, perform all manner of acrobatics and defy gravity in vigorous, fast-paced duels. Cheh’s directing compliments the pace of the action with speedy editing, handheld camerawork and tight framing. Compared to what had come before in the wuxia genre Cheh’s filmmaking set a new pace for swordplay ramping up the speed and violence, and in turn setting the tone for popular Hong Kong cinema for the next decade.
Cheh’s immensely successful One-Armed Swordsman tells the story of Fang Kang, an orphan adopted by the shifu (head tutor) of an elite martial arts school. The shifu of the school treats Fang like a son and seems to favour him as the next head of the school. Not wanting to cause strife among his adopted family Fang flees the school but not before he loses an arm to the master’s jealous daughter. Fang takes refuge in the countryside and learns a unique style of one-armed sword fighting from a battered martial arts manual. When the Qi School’s rival Big Tiger moves to assassinate the master, Fang returns – saving face and demonstrating his new-found skills.
The film’s finale, a showdown between Fang Kang and Big Tiger, is one of the finest sword fights on film – it also serves as a succinct expression of Cheh’s signature style. Jimmy Wang Yu, as Fang, plays the scene with one arm tied behind his back, Cheh uses some clever cutting to obscure this fact and it’s a testament to Wang’s performance and Cheh’s camerawork that we’re none the wiser.
Check out the finale scene below:
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Wuxia fights play out in a more fantastical manner to those seen in Japanese samurai pictures. Cheh’s use of rapid cutting to emphasize magical abilities or feats of strength is now a hallmark of the kung fu film. Take note of the cuts when characters jump; we see feet lifting off the ground, a body flying through the air with ease and the feet touching down again. Despite the frequent cutting the effect is seamless, we believe the characters are jumping great distances or flying through the air. Cheh compartmentalizes his best moments but doesn’t lose any clarity or impact.
The final confrontation between Fang Kang and Big Tiger is kinetic and visceral. Cheh uses bloodshed as a punctuation mark. Blood-letting acts as the payoff for the combatants mystical techniques in battle. The camerawork follows the momentum of the fight, shifting with the circling combatants and cutting back and forth between the clashing of swords. Cheh’s intention is to put us in the action and he achieves this; each drop of blood produces a wince or whoop from the viewer as the hero and villain score successful slashes.
The fight ends with a wuxia fakeout typical of Cheh’s output. Fang Kang appears to be fatally injured when a poison-tipped spear pierces his shoulder. Big Tiger believes he has won and begins to gloat. Fang musters his strength and takes a massive leap toward his laughing assailant cutting him down with a vertical slash. Big Tiger is defeated and Fang removes the spear from his shoulder revealing a hole straight through his sleeve where his arm used to be. As is the case in many Chang Cheh films the protagonist uses their handicap to win the day (see also: Crippled Avengers, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, The Delightful Forest and so on).
With One-Armed Swordsman Chang Cheh broke box office records and became one of the most important figures in Asian cinema. The film built on traditional theatrical and operatic storytelling and ramped up the action and violence to a previously unseen level. Swordsman was the benchmark for all wuxia films that followed it. Its final fight sequence is as exhilarating and clever today as it was fifty years ago. Cheh was a master of the genre and with his breakthrough picture crafted one of the all-time great movie fights.
Featured Image Source: wftrok.com