Beginning in 1965, actor Jimmy Wang Yu worked making films for the famous Shaw Brothers Studio operated by Run Run Shaw, making films like One-Armed Swordsman (1967) and Come Drink with Me (1966) sequel Golden Swallow (1968). It wasn’t until 1970 that Yu shifted his role to include writing and directing with The Chinese Boxer (1970), also known as The Hammer of God internationally. His follow-up picture would take much of the concept of his Shaw Brothers picture and reconceptualize it with competitor Golden Harvest, giving audiences One-Armed Boxer (1972). The resulting film is a top-to-bottom slugfest with fighters representing several Asian and South Asian fighting styles in a tale of deceit and revenge that comes fast and bloody. Arrow Video is set to release a 2K restoration of Yu’s film from original elements, complete with the original lossless Mandarin mono audio and several on-disc bonus features. Though time hasn’t been as kind to the content of the narrative, there’s no doubt that Yu’s One-Armed Boxer remains an influential component in modern action cinema.
When a misunderstanding at a local tea house leads to violence, star pupil of the Ching Te School Tien Lung (Yu) steps in to defend the victims from the members of the Hook Gang who provoked the incident. In the skirmish, members of the Hook Gang are injured, leading to hurt bodies and egos. Telling their own master, Chao (Tien Yeh), that Tien Lung not only started the fight but insulted Chao, a demand for restitution is made. With tempers flying and violence seeming to be the only answer, Chao brings in martial arts experts from Thailand, Japan, Tibet, and India to destroy the opposing Ching Te School. With these extra forces, Tien Lung is helpless to stop the Hook Gang’s rampage, losing his master, his classmates, and one of his arms by the end of the fight. Given help by a medicine specialist, Tien Lung not only recovers from the fight but learns a new technique which may make justice possible.
I couldn’t help but ruminate on the similarity in the premise between One-Armed Boxer and Yu’s prior work, The Chinese Boxer, while watching the film. I suspect this may have been as much about rubbing salt in the wounds of having left Shaw Brothers as it was to more easily promote the new project for a burgeoning studio, basically, a “you liked that, so how about more of it” approach. Also, as more martial arts projects were being churned out at the time, it made it easier for a new studio to attract audiences who may be less aware of who’s producing what as long as it features their favorite actor (at the time Yu was a major star) doing more of what they love. When it comes to action, One-Armed Boxer is described by Frank Djeng in the included feature-length commentary track as a superhero film, something that’s easily believable since the film is basically several long fights highlighting different fighting styles with a little bit of narrative thrown in. From start-to-finish, there’s barely a dull moment with someone either starting a fight, losing a fight, training to fight again, or throwing down in royal rumble-type no-holds-barred combat. There’s truly barely a moment to breathe as the narrative rarely slows down, going from a character stating that they’ll attack the next day to a cut of warriors about to attack. Yu isn’t interested in wasting time with logic or reason when there’s a fight to be had. For the most part, this is the charm of One-Armed Boxer; it’s uninterested in anything that slows down the mayhem.
Where One-Armed Boxer doesn’t age as well is in the presentation of some of the opposition fighters. It’s not just the stereotypical costumes, but the actual darkening of skin in order to present the appearance of the right look (most noticeable with Chun Lin Pan’s Mura Singh, the Indian Yoga master). Even the master from Japan, Master Erh Ku Da Leung (Wong Fei-lung) seems to have a little additional color added to his skin, though you’d be forgiven for not noticing that as you might’ve been distracted by his very visible fangs. Master Leung is the most vicious of all the masters Chao hires and one can’t help but think, given the period of the film and the politics of Hong Kong in the 1970s, that the presentation of the master is a method of slighting the Japanese who inhabit Hong Kong. Consider the far more overt in its politics, the 1972 Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury, which featured Lee’s Chen Zhen seeking revenge against a rival Japanese school for the murder of his master. Fist of Fury didn’t stop there, it even included a scene in which the prone to anger Zhen destroyed a racist sign proclaiming that Chinese citizens weren’t allowed in a Hong Kong park. Though One-Armed Boxer is far more interested in when the next fight is coming than politics, there’s a subversive nature to the presentation of the characters that implies a certain goodliness or evil, depending on their styling that goes beyond just who’s the hero and who’s the villain.
Despite the portions of One-Armed Boxer which don’t age too well, it’s the significance of the film regarding its place in martial arts cinema. Good or evil in presentation, One-Armed Boxer offers representation of multiple fighting styles, each with their own unique forms and specialties. Rather than making a statement of one being better than the rest, Yu creates an entirely new style to defeat them all. Granted it’s the poorly named “Cripple Fist,” something that isn’t appropriate as a descriptor or designation, but it serves to (a) imply someone born with a disability or who comes to one via accident or health issue remains capable of great martial arts mastery and (b) gently skips over any proclamation of the best form of martial arts. Considering we have Master Hamir (Topo Wresniwiro) in the Doctor Strange films as a modern representation of this (too small a representation, though it may be), there are certainly lessons that modern cinema has learned or, at the very least, adopted since films like One-Armed Boxer were released.
As far as the restoration is concerned, I can only provide information on what’s on-disc as the review copy provided by MVD Entertainment Group is not the final retail edition. I can’t speak to the process of restoration, offer thoughts on the cover art, or any of the internal information.
The restoration itself, however it was completed using original materials, looks and sounds absolutely fantastic. There’s no visible fading, the colors vibrant and energetic. Doesn’t matter if it’s Tien Lung standing his ground in the final battle or one of the earlier bouts, the blood you see is a vibrant red and the blacks in outfits are more natural in presentation. One downside to the restoration is the makeup work is more visible, so you can see where Chao has makeup highlighting his brow. Even more attention is brought to his hair decoration — either a wig or painted — as his blue hair is not only more vibrant in the restoration, the details are far more prominent (something they might not have been originally, so they didn’t look as cheap in construction). If you compare the restoration against the original trailer, it’ll feel like a completely different film with so much haze removed. Even monoaural, the sound and dialogue are completely clear. One thing that might throw off the uninformed or unexpectant audience member is just how much of the score is stolen from Isaac Hayes and J.J. Johnson’s 1971 Shaft, which plays over the title credits and throughout significant moments. You can learn about this (and other times Hong Kong cinema ripped off other composers) through the commentary Djeng provides as a bonus feature or go watch the documentary Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks (2019) that Djeng *very* briefly appears in.
Outside of the full-length commentary track, the restoration includes a previously recorded but never shared interview with Yu conducted in 2001. Evidentially the interview tape was damaged and Arrow did their best to restore what they could, so expect some sound and visual damage when watching this 41-minute interview. There’s also a trailer gallery which includes Hong Kong and US editions of the trailer for One-Armed Boxer, as well as a 34-minute reel of trailers featuring other projects Yu took part in. If you grew up watching the American version of the film, you can also watch the American version of the title credits on their own within the special features portion.
Though I cannot speak to the physical appearance of the disc or the tangible aspects, for martial arts fans, specifically Hong Kong martial arts fans, this restoration is easy to recommend. The materials on-disc provide learning opportunities for those of us with less cinematic knowledge, while the film itself is restored to a point that makes it feel fresh, rather than 50 years old. It looks good, it sounds good, and it totals nearly 90 straight minutes of ass-kicking.
One-Armed Boxer Special Features:
- First Pressing Only: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Simon Abrams
- 2K restoration from the original elements by Fortune Star
- High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation
- Original lossless Mandarin mono audio, alternate Mandarin soundtrack and original English dubbed audio
- Optional English subtitles, plus hard-of-hearing subtitles for the English dub
- Commentary by Frank Djeng from the NY Asian Film Festival (1:33:18)
- Career retrospective interview with Wang Yu, filmed in Nantes in 2001 and never released before, courtesy of the Frédéric Ambroisine Video Archive (41:17)
- Trailer gallery, featuring the original Hong Kong theatrical trailer, a US TV spot (as The Chinese Professionals) and over half an hour (34:29) of trailers for other Wang Yu classics including One-Armed Swordsman and Master of the Flying Guillotine
- Alternative English Trailer (1:58)
- Image gallery
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ilan Sheady
Available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video May 24th, 2022.
To purchase a copy, head to MVD Entertainment Group.
For more information, head to Arrow Video.