By Thomas Puhr.
This ‘plot’ is mostly window dressing for a series of increasingly complicated (and ridiculous) fight sequences. These set pieces are impressively choreographed and shot…boasting the kind of excessive violence similar genre exercises promise yet don’t always deliver.”
The good people at Arrow Video may have the market cornered on eye-popping cover art – so much so that some of the films they (re)release fail to meet the expectations their pristine packaging promises. Imagine the disappointment in store for those enticed by Gilles Vranckx’s one-sheet for Season of the Witch (1972) or Gary Pullin’s for Children of the Corn (1984). Sometimes the line separating “lost classic” from “bad movie” isn’t so thin after all.
I’m pleased to report that Ilan Sheady’s newly commissioned illustration for One-Armed Boxer (1972) does not fall under this unfortunate category; if anything, it undersells just how batshit “Jimmy” Wang Yu’s kung fu hodgepodge is. In addition to writing and directing, Wang headlines as Yu Tian Long, star pupil of the Zhengde School of martial arts. After standing up to the dreaded “Hook Gang” (they’re easy to spot: They all brandish hooks – even when grabbing a table at a teahouse), he unintentionally triggers a feud between his teacher, Han Tui (Ma Kei), and the Hook Gang’s boss, Shao Laoliu (Yeh Tien).
The latter, seeking to wipe out the Zhengde School once and for all, recruits a rogues’ gallery of martial arts experts, including (but not limited to): Nitani Taro (Lung Fei), a Japanese Grand Master who sports vampiric fangs; Zuo Long (Su Ping-jen) and Zuo Hu (Chang Yi-kuei), Tibetan fighters who can expand their chests so as to be immune to an opponent’s blows; and – in the film’s most brazenly racist archetype – Mura Singh (Pan Chun-lin), a Yoga expert who hypnotizes his victims by running circles around them while standing on his hands (all accompanied by sitar music, no less).
This “plot” is mostly window dressing for a series of increasingly complicated (and ridiculous) fight sequences. These set pieces are impressively choreographed and shot (the film is the product of a bygone era, when it was clear who was doing what in action scenes, and when a well-placed punch or kick sounded like the crack of a whip), boasting the kind of excessive violence similar genre exercises promise yet don’t always deliver. Every time a henchman takes it in the stomach, for instance, he invariably spits out orange-ish blood before crumpling to the ground. Elsewhere, we get the pleasure of watching Nitano Taro karate chopping Yu’s arm off during the requisite slaughter at the Zhengde School.
Of course, revenge fantasy tropes dictate that our hero will barely survive this attack before learning how to kick some serious ass with his remaining fist. More surprising is his method for doing so: Like a blacksmith in a forge, he plunges the appendage in a fire and then smashes it to indestructibility with the help of a giant rock and pulley. Such absurdism is precisely why One-Armed Boxer works, despite its datedness. How, you may wonder, does Tu defeat Mura Singh? By hopping around not just on one hand, but one finger, thereby stunning his adversary. It’s harder to be mad at a movie’s cultural insensitivity when every character inhabiting the story is essentially a cartoon – more comic strip figure than human.
One-Armed Boxer is also just a lot of fun. Wang never takes himself too seriously, wearing his inspirations on his sleeve. The opening fight in the teahouse, in which he stands up to the Hook Gang, climaxes with a freeze frame of the star in mid-air, foot outstretched toward an opponent’s chest. The music swells, and viewers will have a moment of déjà vu before realizing that, yes, an instrumental version of Isaac Hayes’ theme song from Shaft (released just a year prior)accompanies the lively credits sequence (“Hong Kong in particular doesn’t [sic] really care about copyright and music royalties back then,” Frank Djeng explains with a chuckle, in his audio commentary for the Blu-ray).
The director also wisely sidesteps rote exposition, preferring to get to the action as soon as he can. After losing his arm, Yu is rescued by a father and daughter, the former of whom trains him in the lost art of one-armed combat. Instead of subjecting viewers to an interlude of the protagonist training, getting to know the family, falling in love with the daughter, etc., the director settles for a quick freeze-frame montage detailing the character’s recovery (one of these stills captures the group laughing merrily as Yu attempts to eat noodles). Seconds later, he’s back at it. This director knows what his audience wants and is eager to give it to them.
As one would expect from Arrow, the release is handsomely packed with extras: essays by David West and Simon Abrams, the abovementioned feature-length commentary, a gallery of trailers, and – most enticingly – a heretofore unreleased 40-minute interview with Wang from 2001. Here, we learn the director was a professional water polo player who tried his hand at acting as a lark after getting suspended from his league. We also get some insight into his methodology; since the camera largely faces the character’s front, he had to complete many scenes with his arm tied behind his back (rather than in front, which would have allowed for easier balance). Later in the interview, he verifies that he was the first Chinese action star to refuse a double for dangerous stunts; why bother if “Hong Kong’s first kung fu superstar” knows he can do it better than any stand-in? This approach, we learn, inspired his friend and protégé Jackie Chan to follow suit.
Though certainly a product of a particular time and culture (Djeng lucidly explains the significance of blink-and-you-miss-it references, such as the significance of the number 3 to Chinese tradition), the film has an undeniable universality to it. The good guys wear blue, the jeering bad guys wear black and carry weapons. Viewers of any age will intuitively understand this symbolism. And such simplicity is for the best, as it allows Wang and company to achieve their primary objective: entertaining their viewers with an unabashed action extravaganza. One-Armed Boxer achieves this goal in spades. Fans of ’70s kung fu will find much to love here.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.