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Sunday, June 13, 2010

RETURN OF THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN -- DVD review by porfle

Master Fang Gang (Jimmy Wang Yu), the legendary one-armed swordsman, has dropped out of the martial world and settled down to the quiet life of a farmer with his lovely and devoted wife Xiaoman (Chiao Chiao).  But just when he thinks he's out, they keep pulling him back in.  With Dragon Dynasty's new DVD release of the Shaw Brothers' 1969 classic RETURN OF THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, Master Fang's peaceful new existence is shattered when he finds himself up to his eyeballs in blood-drenched mayhem against a host of uniquely-talented opponents. 

A gang of self-proclaimed martial arts kings invite all the sword clans in the area to their stronghold to participate in a contest that will decide the "King of Swords."  Actually, it's a ruse to attract all sword clan elders into a trap so that the bad guys can eliminate their competition by threatening to kill them unless their followers cut off their own right arms and deliver them as ransom.  When the young pupils beseech the retired Fang Gang to take up his sword once again and help rescue their elders, he's reluctant to do so until his wife is threatened, which prompts him into action.  But the journey to the enemy fortress is fraught with danger as the group is ambushed at every turn by the various evil sword kings and their minions. 

Despite its fanciful characters and colorful action, RETURN is a sober, somber film with little or no comedy, in which the frequent deaths of likable lead characters give it an atmosphere of dread.  The group of young rescuers is constantly attacked along their route by gangs of bloodthirsty villains, each dealing death by their own bizarre means in some of the bloodiest Shaw Brothers action I've seen.  Hell's Guardian and his Seven Earth Bullies spring out of the ground itself while Heaven Strike and his Nine Flying Pupils drop out of the sky; Spinning Wheels and his men slice their opponents to ribbons with razor-sharp whirling blades.



Other frightful sword kings include Poisonous Dragon, Great Muscles, and Quick Arms.  The most treacherous of the bunch is the beautiful Lady of a Thousand Hands, who poses as a damsel in distress in order to gain the trust of our heroes and then strikes with her many deadly blades while their guard is down.  Worst of all, however, is the Stealth King, a master of deception whose weapons can't even be seen until they've already killed you.  Master Fang has to take this guy on along with his hordes of bodyguards (none of these crumbs fight fair) in the climactic battle.

Swordplay takes place in bamboo forests, teahouses, roadside inns, and finally in the villains' fortified lair itself.  The fight choreography isn't as refined as it would become over the years, but this is some pretty furious stuff for its time and there are several exciting free-for-all combat sequences throughout the film.  The few instances of primitive wirework which pop up now and then are a bit jarring since the characters appear to be swinging rather than flying (which, of course, is still fun to watch anyway).  More effective is the scene in which Master Fang's attackers are bouncing high into the air all around him with the help of unseen trampolines.  Other special effects depicting the bad guys' unusual weaponry in action are generally good, particularly those nasty spinning wheels of death.
 

Chang Cheh's relatively restrained direction not only keeps the action under control but also gives the dramatic scenes the air of gravitas required to lend depth to the story, especially during the interactions between Fang and his wife. The cast is generally very good and there is little of the hammy overacting one often sees in these old Shaw Brothers films, save that which is expected of the more over-the-top villains.  Jimmy Wang Yu is very appealing as the title character, whose humility and reluctance to fight make him an even more admirable hero. 

The DVD from Dragon Dynasty is presented in its original widescreen with both Mandarin and English mono soundtracks.  Subtitles are in English and Spanish.  This is a barebones disc with no extras.

Fans of the clash 'n' slash genre won't want to miss this fight-filled epic.  With its fascinating main character, imaginative array of villains, inventive fight scenes and weaponry, and epic storyline, RETURN OF THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN is clearly one of the films that helped create the template for all the Hong Kong sword operas to come. 


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