One-Armed Boxer Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: May 24, 2022
Audio: Mandarin and English LPCM 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English and English SDH
Run Time: 93:17
Director: Jimmy Wang Yu
Yu Tian Long (Jimmy Wang Yu) is the best fighter to come out of his local martial arts school, but when he crosses the ruthless leader of a local crime syndicate, the big boss’ brutal bevy of deadly killers make mincemeat out of the school and everyone inside. Now, the only survivor of the massacre and short of one appendage, Yu is gifted a powerful elixir that promises to give him the strength to take swift revenge on the army of assassins, each representing the most lethal forms of fighting from across the Eastern hemisphere. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
As a performer, Jimmy Wang Yu (aka: Wang Zhengquan, who, sadly, died a little over a month before this Blu-ray was released in April 2022) learned the ropes under the Shaw Bros studio machine, appearing in some of the influential director Cheh Chang’s greatest early films, including The Magnificent Trio (1966), The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), and The Golden Swallow (1968, a sequel to King Hu’s 1966 classic Come Drink with Me). Shortly after becoming one of the studio’s biggest money makers, he made his directorial debut with The Chinese Boxer (aka: The Hammer of God, 1970), which some critics consider the first true kung-fu film, because it was the first big hit of its kind that didn’t feature magical elements or extensive weapons work. Wang instead focused on elaborate hand-to-hand combat and a closer to contemporary setting (the film doesn’t take place in 1970, but also doesn’t take place in some mythic past), which, in turn, inspired the likes of Lee and the people that followed his lead.
The same year, senior Shaw executives Raymond Chow, Leonard Ho Koon-cheung, and Leung Fung left the studio and founded a new company that eventually rivaled the Hong Kong giant, Golden Harvest Films. Wang was brought onboard and even tapped to revisit the One-Armed Swordsman character in Kimiyoshi Yasuda & Hsu Tseng Hung’s Japanese chambara/Chinese wuxia crossover, Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman (1971), ensuing the wrath of Shaw’s lawyers. Golden Harvest’s bread & butter was Bruce Lee – including Lo Wei & Wu Chia Hsiang’s The Big Boss (1971), Wei’s Fist of Fury (1972), Lee’s own The Way of the Dragon (1972), and the Hong Kong distribution rights of Robert Clouse’s Enter the Dragon (1973) – but they also continued tapping Wang’s box office appeal, cashing in on his past successes, conspiring to combine The One-Armed Swordsman and Chinese Boxer into 1971’s One-Armed Boxer, which Wang himself would write and direct.
Clearly, One-Armed Boxer was made to make money, not to tell a unique story or set a new stylistic precedent. Wang streamlines and simplifies popular tropes, like warring martial arts schools, criminal enterprises, corruption, and redemption (possibly the shortest recovery/retraining montage I’ve ever seen in my life), and places emphasis on elaborate fights over plotting. With its boss fight structure, increasingly cartoonish violence (which is bloody, but rarely gory), and fixation on contrasting international styles, the screenplay functions as a sort of a proto-video game narrative. Also, in keeping with Lee’s Golden Harvest films, it is brimming with post-Sino-Japanese War nationalism. Unlike Fist of Fury, which is primarily an angry anti-Japanese exercise, One-Armed Boxer features a virtual carnival of non-Chinese cultures as villains, including a brown-faced Indian yogi, Tibetan lamas, and Thai kickboxers. Still, the final boss – a karate master with a wild black mane and literal fangs – does harken back to specifically anti-Japanese sentiment. I have little idea how respectful or disrespectful these portrayals are (the brown-face isn’t great and yoga isn’t really a martial arts style outside of Street Fighter games), but Wang and action director Chen Chih Hua are at least interested in illustrating the differences between styles, so no one comes across as weak simply because they don’t practice Chinese boxing. In the end, Wang invents a fictional technique to defeat the bad guys, anyway, putting the finale more in line with the fantastical wuxia movies Tsui Hark would make for Golden Harvest in the following decade.
Wang wrote, directed, and starred in a Taiwan-made sequel in 1976. It’s called One-Armed Boxer II in some territories, but is better-known as Master of the Fatal Flying Guillotine, the second movie featuring the buzzsaw-like weapon, following Ho Meng-Hua’s Shaw-produced The Flying Guillotine 1975). The sequel grew into a massive success all its own, inspiring a pseudo-prequel in Raymond Lui’s The Fatal Flying Guillotine (1977) and Andrew Lau’s 2012 epic The Guillotines.
Golden Harvest: Leading Change in Changing Times, The Organizational Structure and Developmental History of Golden Harvest by Po Fung (Hong Kong Film Archive, 2013)
Like Shaw Bros. films, Golden Harvest’s early output fell victim to dubious copyright on the American home video market. The best US DVD releases of One-Armed Boxer came from Pathfinder Pictures, who offered anamorphic widescreen versions of the original and export cuts, commentaries, and interviews. This stateside Blu-ray debut follows a UK exclusive disc from Eureka and HD streaming versions. It appears that both Eureka’s disc and Arrow’s US BD debut derive from the same 2K restoration of the original film elements, provided by Chinese studio Fortune Star Media. One-Armed Boxer was backed up with a (comparatively) sizable budget and, considering that Golden Harvest didn’t have access to the Shaw Bros. backdrops/sets, quite a bit of it was shot in outdoor locations where cinematographer Mo Shen Ku couldn’t control the lighting. The results are flashy, yet more naturalistic than you’d see from the Shaw machine in the following years. The 2.35:1, 1080p transfer has its share of grit and grain, but rarely at the risk of fine detail. At the same time, there isn’t too much evidence of the oversharpening and DNR smoothing that mar many otherwise impressive Shaw Bros. transfers supplied by Celestial Pictures. Print damage is minimal, mostly consisting of snowy or clumping grain bits. Though not as vivid as those Celestial transfers, colors are consistent throughout, especially the blue and yellow hues that are used for the costumes.
One-Armed Boxer includes two separate Mandarin language tracks and the original English dub. All three are presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono. I don’t know the story behind there being two different Mandarin dubs and no Cantonese option, but the lip-sync is pretty close on the Mandarin track, so I assume that’s what was mostly being spoken on set (edit: Frank Djeng talks a little about the fact that it was shot in Mandarin during the commentary track). I tend to default to English dubs while watching this era of Hong Kong action, but have to say, whoever was dubbing the Shaw movies had the best casts and mixers, because the English performances here are quite low energy (Jimmy Wang’s dubber is especially lifeless). The two Mandarin tracks have superior clarity and, though compacted into a single channel, more dynamic than the flat and buzzy English dub. The differences between the Mandarin options is that the first features selections from Issac Hayes’ Shaft theme. Lifting music from Hollywood was far from unheard of, though I assume there must have been a complaint somewhere down the line in this case, hence the removal. Otherwise, all three tracks include music credited to Wang Fu Ling and Wang Ping.
Commentary with Frank Djeng: The always friendly NY Asian Film Festival programmer, producer, and critic offers up another full-bodied track, covering the careers of the major cast & crew members, some of the historical anachronisms, One-Armed Boxer’s place as a bridge between the Shaw films and Bruce Lee’s international breakthrough, the ins and outs of the fight choreography, Wang’s many reasons for leaving Shaw Bros, and much more.
The One-Armed Superstar (41:16, HD) – This previously unreleased 2001 career retrospective interview with Wang was filmed in Nantes, France and comes courtesy of the Frédéric Ambroisine Video Archive. As the description indicates, the discussion covers the bulk of the performer/filmmaker’s professional life, from training as a swimmer to his work with Shaw Bros. and other motion pictures of the subsequent decades.
Alternate English credits (1:58, HD)
Trailer gallery – Hong Kong trailer, US TV spot, The Chinese Professionals TV spot, and Wang Yu trailer reel
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.