14 Sep REARMING THE ICONIC: VIOLENCE COMES FULL CIRCLE WITH A RELUCTANT HERO IN CHANG CHEH’S RETURN OF THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN
“One person getting fame over thousands of dead bodies. For this vain title, how many lives have been sacrificed?”
There is an ultimate question the plagues the film industry. How do you make a sequel to a film that breaks barriers, connects with its audience, and makes a lot of money? There are multiple ways to approach the question (and the resulting sequel) and there are a few well-worn paths that the industry has used to expand on it. One could easily just replicate the original, hope audiences still feel the same about it, and go from there. One could also go a completely different direction with the material, hope audiences will follow along, and go from there. Finally, one can attempt to expand the material with bigger ideas and leaner and meaner evolutions of the same core foundations, hoping an audience buys into the gimmicks, and go from there. All three options have their merits and faults. Depending on the material though, any one way could be brilliant or burn the flame of an audience rejecting the entire concept. Making a sequel to any kind of iconic film is going to develop a love it or hate it attitude in its fans no matter how good or bad it is in quality.
In the case of Chang Cheh’s Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, the essence of the film is that of a hybrid of the original film by taking its heartfelt character and attempting to place him in a situation that takes the smaller gimmicks of the original to outrageous new places. It’s a new direction, pulling away from the more dramatic and character driven pieces as the main driving force of the film, but it’s also an expansion of its universe as it throws eight (yes, as in 8!) villains at our one-armed hero. Just in concept, this can create a love it/hate it dynamic in its viewers as it only has smaller portions of the more intimate character work that made Jimmy Wang Yu’s Fang such an icon of the genre.
Return of the One-Armed Swordsman is a film that does not try to trick its viewers into thinking it’s going to compare to the previous one though and that’s key to accepting it as a sequel. Right away, from the first sequence, this film showcases its new “aim to entertain” focus and it does not beat around the bush. Even the manner that Fang Gang is introduced, with one of those classic kung fu rapid zooms, seems to indicate that while it is the same character, the film he is now occupying is not nearly as serious and melodramatic even when it pulls back into the themes of his character. From there, the audience is thrust into the middle of the larger plot of the villains plotting like madmen to take over the world and the various assassins and gimmicks they utilize. It’s worth noting that this film also features a few great smaller casting choices for the various secondary roles (including an early role for Ti Lung who is quickly dispatched – heroically – by one of the villains.) As with plenty of Chang Cheh films, the pacing in the film is only a benefit to the sheer entertainment of the film and keeps it moving even when it starts ripping out characters left and right.
This fast paced, action packed focus for the sequel does hide an interesting subplot that does connect in concept to the original. One of the core themes in The One-Armed Swordsman is how violence always comes back in a vicious circle and that wrongs must be righted (which in turn leads to its own set of wrongs that must be righted, which in turn leads to its own, etc.) Return only continues in that theme. Despite his good intentions, Fang Gang is uncovered by this villainous organization as one of the best swordsmen and, once again despite his best intentions to remove himself from it, is forced back into a world of violence by both the villains and the heroes who aim to recruit him for their cause. There is even a scene in the first act, where Fang’s wife somewhat criticizes him for continuing to practice with his short blade even when it comes in handy when defending them from two assassins. A scene that is then paralleled in the third act where his wife praises him for his bravery and the title of “Sword King” that the good guys bestow on him. While it’s not quite the morally gray areas that the character resided in with the original, the continued themes about one’s destiny and the never-ending circular nature of violence gives the film just enough context and subtext to make sure that it’s not entirely a gimmick driven film. The quote I pulled to open this article, from the latter sequence with Fang Gang and his wife, is key to understanding the torn essence of the character and its moments like this (or the fantastic sweeping camera shot showing all of the lost lives when Fang Gang leads the survivors of a fortress siege in the second half) that indicate the subtle depth that Return has under its larger gimmicks and action.
In the end, it’s the dual nature of the character driven themes and the massive gimmicks of the plot that make Return of the One-Armed Swordsman such a unique property and one that delivers on multiple levels as a sequel. It’s also one of the prime examples of how director Chang Cheh can impressively make art out of entertainment time and time again leaving this second entry of the initial One-Armed Swordsman trilogy as a rearmed icon of the genre.
It also ultimately asks the question of its audience, what kind of hero do you want to be? And shouldn’t that be the question everyone asks during the Summer of the Sword event?
Watch Return of the One Armed Swordsman with Amazon Prime: http://a.co/el5UdoN