The One-Armed Swordsman (1967)

Viewed February 7th

In this early Chang Cheh film, a swordsman who has his right arm sliced off learns to fight solely with his left.

The One-Armed Swordsman helped develop the template for much classic kung fu cinema. Part of that template involves stories that are, intentionally or not, completely wrapped up in cis male anxiety and desire. Here a capable swordsman is horsing around with a woman, dominating her, when she accidentally slices off his right arm, the arm he uses to wield his sword. This leaves him unable to fight like a real man so he has to become a lowly farmer. In other words, the woman had castrated him, leaving him with an intense feeling of lack and insecurity. He no longer has the ability to wield a sword. By setting up the character this way, Cheh draws on the deep-seated fears of the largely male audience that's typically attracted to martial arts films. In what follows, though, the character is encouraged by another woman to learn to fight with his good left arm and he does so with a little half-sword, like a little half-phallus that, despite its littleness, is capable of killing everyone and saving every woman. The male viewer watching the film cheers on the one-armed protagonist and his little half-phallus as it slices and dices its way to mastery of the world; however, the film doesn't totally satisfy the desires of unbridled male fantasy. In these salad days of kung fu cinema, the relatively realistic aesthetic and storyline represented a character's journey toward an object of desire rather than, through aesthetic and storyline, abstracting this journey to the point that it embodies male fantasy. That development in kung fu cinema, however, is not far off.