Director: Jimmy Wang Yu (as Yu Wang)
Screenplay: Jimmy Wang Yu (as Yu Wang)
Starring: Jimmy Wang Yu, Yeh Tien, Hsin Tang, Wong Fei-lung, Chi Ma
Country: Hong Kong, Taiwan
Running Time: 93 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
The martial arts star Jimmy Wang Yu isn’t as well known now as contemporaries Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, both of whom he reportedly helped give breaks to in different ways, but he was huge in his day and his work is well worthy of reappraisal.
Wang became big after starring in The One-Armed Swordsman and then became a megastar after 1970’s The Chinese Boxer (a.k.a. The Hammer of God or Long hu dou). The latter is occasionally cited (by Wang himself, at least) as the first successful kung-fu movie. This isn’t entirely true, though it was the first of the big boom that started in the 70s. Most martial arts movies prior to this were wuxia – swordplay films (or ‘films of martial chivalry’ if you want the literal translation). The Chinese Boxer, which Wang wrote and directed, as well as starred in, instead had its heroes punch and kick their way to victory. Hong Kong audiences lapped it up and the film’s success helped pave the way for the films of Bruce Lee that came soon after and kick-started a kung-fu craze around the world.
This success went to Wang’s head and, being unhappy with the low wages and lack of creative control he was experiencing at Shaw Brothers, he split with them and joined the relatively new Golden Harvest studio, who offered him a better deal. He was hit with several lawsuits by Shaw Brothers though, effectively preventing him from working in Hong Kong, so he had to shoot his films in Taiwan.
The first film he starred in for Golden Harvest was The Invincible Sword (a.k.a. Yi fu dang guan), but the first kung-fu film he made for them that he also wrote and directed was One Armed Boxer (a.k.a Du bei chuan wang). This was a bit of a cash-in on his earlier The One-Armed Swordsman, in terms of title and concept, but lost the wuxia trappings and went down the kung-fu route, now become rapidly more popular. It was also very successful and helped Wang continue to be the biggest martial arts star of the period, before Lee soon took over (The Big Boss was out by this time, so he was on his way).
Eureka are turning to One Armed Boxer for their latest Eureka Classics release. It’s a famous early kung-fu movie that has previously passed me by, so I jumped on the chance to review it as soon as it was announced.
One Armed Boxer sees Wang play Yu Tien Lung, a tough young student of the Ching Te martial arts school. One day he comes to the rescue of an innocent old man being harassed by members of the Hook Gang, who are a rival martial arts school.
Chao Liu (Yeh Tien), the leader of the Hook Gang, is insulted by this attack on his underlings, so confronts Ching Te’s master, Han Tui (Chi Ma) about it. Han tells Chao that he’s already punished his pupil for the public brawl, but this isn’t enough for the wicked opium dealer Chao.
When he tries to fight Han over the issue, he’s beaten. So, Chao, who also has his eyes on Han’s successful dye and brick factories, hires a team of powerful foreign mercenary fighters, led mainly by Okinawan karate expert Erh Ku Da Leung (Wong Fei-lung), to do his dirty work for him and eliminate the Ching Te martial arts school.
The fight becomes a massacre, with the Ching Te school wiped out. Tien is the only survivor, though he loses his arm in the fight.
Whilst he recuperates, Tien learns the art of one-armed boxing, strengthening his remaining fist through brutal methods. With this new skill, he vows to take revenge on Chao and his minions.
One Armed Boxer is a whole heap of fun. It’s pretty typical of a lot of old-school kung-fu movies, with its story of honour and revenge between rival schools, as well as its nationalistic tendencies (the bad guy uses foreign fighters so it’s a case of Chinese kung-fu versus the rest of the world’s fighting styles). This was still early on in the kung-fu boom, so a lot of these traits weren’t too cliched yet, though a lot has been borrowed from wuxia.
What the film may lack in originality, however, it makes up for in sheer energy. One Armed Boxer is possibly the most action-packed kung-fu film I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure 5 minutes ever goes by without some sort of fight scene. It’s relentless.
In some cases, this style of non-stop action can get tiresome. However, Wang manages to keep things interesting. For one, in using the various foreign fighters in many of the key fight scenes, you get a range of styles used. Some of these are fairly authentic too, with some Muay Thai kickboxing, karate and judo being doled out. Other styles are somewhat less authentic but no less entertaining.
These can be enjoyably ridiculous, such as the Tibetan monks that inflate their bodies to become impervious to pain and injury or the Indian yoga expert who spins around his enemies stood on his hands (shot in stop motion). Adding to the bonkers nature of it all, one of the main villains, Erh Ku Da Leung, also has fangs for no good reason!
Influenced by his time working for Chang Cheh at Shaw Brothers, Wang also keeps the production values up by shooting in ultra-wide Dyaliscope, using a lot of dolly shots and filling his frames with colourful sets and costumes. I particularly liked the authentic-looking brick and dye factories. Great use is also made of a mill set, with dangerous-looking giant cogs teasing the audience with a possible cause of the inevitable severing of Tien’s arm.
Also inspired by Cheh is the use of blood. One Armed Boxer is a pretty brutal kung-fu film, with victims constantly spitting out the red stuff when they’re hit. Plus, you’ve got the all-important dismemberment scene.
The fights aren’t particularly graceful. Wang was not a trained martial artist. He had to disguise the fact through clever shooting and editing to make him look skilful and mask the use of doubles. The booklet claims Wang deserves credit, in this sense, for being one of the first directors to use cinematic techniques to enhance the combat skills of characters and actors.
Despite the lack of fluid, acrobatic moves, the action is still impressive as it feels very high-impact, aided by suitably overblown sound effects and the aforementioned blood splatters.
One Armed Boxer is, overall, just a straight-up, no-holds-barred fight film that’s occasionally bonkers but handsomely mounted and crammed to the gills with action. It comes highly recommended to martial arts movie fans.
One Armed Boxer is out on 24th May on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. The very first scene has some minor colour inconsistencies, but this is likely as shot and, after this, the image is excellent. It’s detailed, pretty sharp and has strong colours. I’ve used screengrabs in this review to give you an idea of picture quality.
You get both Mandarin and English dub audio options. I opted for the former and it sounded great for a Hong Kong film of the era, with the over-the-top impact sounds coming through with suitable force.
Here’s what’s included in the package:
– Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling [First Print Run of 2000 copies only]
– Limited Edition reversible poster featuring new and original artwork [First Print Run of 2000 copies only]
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a new restoration of the original film elements(worldwide debut of this restoration on home video)
– Original Mandarin and English audio options
– Optional English Subtitles
– Brand new feature-length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival)
– Stills Gallery
– Original trailer
– Limited-Edition Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver and archival writing [First Print Run of 2000 copies only]
It’s not loaded with special features then, but Frank Djeng’s commentary, as with all the tracks he’s recorded for previous Eureka releases, offers an engaging discussion and analysis of the film. I also appreciate the cultural context he provides for certain scenes and lines.
The booklet is an enjoyable read too, offering further background on Wang and the film. There’s also a fun excerpt about the film from ‘The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s’.