The Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1969)

Viewed February 7th

A fighter has to come out of self-imposed retirement to save his region from a group of evil warlords.

If The One-Armed Swordsman was part of a wave of films that established aesthetic and narrative tropes for kung fu cinema to tap into cis male fantasy, The Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, just a couple years later, pushed those tropes into a more abstract and, ultimately, more original embodiment of male fantasy. The visual aesthetic here has turned strongly toward color-coded choreography of motion through space, almost like abstract animation, like an Oscar Fischinger avant-garde film. This style doesn't represent reality, it's reality re-conceived for cinematic purposes. The rhythmic soundtrack of sword swipes, punches, and guttural screams, likewise, accompanies the visual aesthetic for maximum cinematic effect. And the story itself becomes geared toward creating fodder for this visual-aural aesthetic; this means it's mostly a long series of battle-sequences involving fighting techniques created to be photographed and edited into cinematic form.

All of this focus on cinematic qualities is itself directed toward intensifying the relationship between the cis male viewer and the object of their desire. All of the tricks and techniques of the medium are used to reinforce the idea that the man with the little half-phallus is unstoppable and even if he wanted to call it quits, he couldn't because others, particularly women, need him so badly. By becoming a fully cinematic object, the film also itself becomes an object of desire for viewers of cinema, cutting out the middle-man, so to speak, of representing a hero's journey toward an object of desire. A cis male doesn't watch this to identify with a character searching for desire, but to indulge in desire. And this is, in some ways, a triumph of filmmaking for Chang Cheh. But with that triumph comes ethical questions: why should a film should want to exist as an object of male desire. What is that doing for the man?