Even at the warp speed of Hong Kong generic cycles, it’d be weird to remake a movie that came out only four years earlier, so Chang Cheh, in the midst of probably the most frenetic period of production of any great director ever, didn’t remake his smash hit The One-Armed Swordsman, but rather reimagined it into an entirely different context. That first film, starring Jimmy Wang Yu and released in 1967, was about one man’s anguished response to trauma (the unmotivated severing of the eponymous limb by a psychotic woman) and his attempts to reconcile his need for personal peace with the honor code that demands he use his abilities to defend the weak. The sequel, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, released two years later, found that same man dragged once again from his life of peace into the jianghu, this time not so much for justice but as part of a nihilistic game of competitive murder, the code of wuxia revealed as nothing more than a patina of honor covering up the basest human drives. This is the world of The New One-Armed Swordsman as well, but its hero is no longer a lone man, but two, a pair of “brothers”, soulmates who find that they alone believe in the ideals professed by the warrior code.
David Chiang and Ti Lung had worked supporting roles as stuntmen on Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, but by 1971 had become stars in their own right, working with Chang Cheh. Chiang had leads roles in Have Sword Will Travel (1969) and The Wandering Swordsman (1970) while Ti starred in Dead End (1969). The two of them were paired as co-leads for The Heroic Ones and Vengeance! in 1970, and in 1971 in The Duel, Duel of Fists, The Deadly Duo, and The Anonymous Heroes in addition to The New One-Armed Swordsman. After this period, Chang would move on to ever larger groups of fighters, with a cycle of films built around the fall of the Shaolin Temple and then a series of gothic wuxias starring a gang of highly gifted athletes knowns as The Venom Mob. But the Ti Lung/David Chiang films are the heart of his work, the place where his obsessions with violence and the bonds of brotherhood find their fullest expression. Partially this is because they’re the two best actors he worked with, Chiang’s easy charm and Ti’s upright dignity transcend the sordid material of the films’ generic plotting (almost always written by Ni Kuang), and their evident affection and friendship carries an erotic charge, lending credence to the interpretation that Chang’s films are thinly veiled homoerotic fantasies, which in their extreme violence and negativity marks them as repression-driven dreams of self-annihilation. The New One-Armed Swordsman is a prime example of this, as the mutilated hero is no longer motivated by honor, as Jimmy Wang Yu was, but by simple revenge for his fallen comrade.
The plot structure is familiar to any fan of Stephen Chow’s films: a young, brash hero is brought low by a fiendish villain, spends some time slumming among the poor, then rises again to defeat his enemies. David Chiang is the young man, a hero of no apparent backstory or ideology who opens the film slicing up bad guys but is quickly tricked into a challenge match with Ku Feng, veteran Shaws character actor who played Wang Yu’s father in the first One-Armed Swordsman and Chiang and Ti’s father in The Heroic Ones. Ku has developed a technique with his three-sectioned staff that can defeat Chiang’s dual-wielded swords. As punishment for losing the match, Chiang agrees to cut off his own arm and retire forever from the jianghu.
A year later, Chiang is working as a server at a local inn, when Ti Lung resplendently rides into town and rescues Chiang from a couple of local gangsters who had been pawing at the only woman in the movie, the blacksmith’s daughter played by Lee Ching. The girl has a crush on Chiang, but he’s too sad over and ashamed of his missing arm to do anything about it. But he brightens up when Ti shows up: he’s the righteous dual-sword wielding hero Chiang used to be. Ti eventually figures out who Chiang is (his maiming has become legend in the jianghu) and the two quickly become friends. Then Ti rides off to partake in a martial arts competition/obvious trap being run by Ku Feng. Ku, despite being the boss of all the gang activity in the area, has a reputation as a hero, so he’s easily able to trick young warriors into fighting him. Chiang was not the first man he’d maimed and sent off into an early retirement. Ti doesn’t get off so lucky, however, and Chiang rides into the gangster stronghold to exact bloody vengeance.
This is of course in direct contravention of the code of honor that demands Chiang permanently retire from the jianghu, which he managed to do for about a year, even with the loss of his right arm. There’s not even a feint towards a conflict about this, unlike Wang Yu’s tortured hemming and hawing in the earlier two films. No, for this One-Armed Swordsman, the bonds of brotherly friendship override any past promises, the drive to revenge greater than any abstract ideal of honor. Nor is there any hint that Chiang’s abilities have diminished due to his handicap: in the first film (as in Tsui Hark’s black-souled remake The Blade), Wang Yu must learn an entirely new, one-armed, fighting technique (from a kung fu manual that has itself been sliced in half). Far from being a hinderance, Chiang’s missing arm is actually what allows him to evade not one, but two devious traps laid out by the enemy, traps which Ti, with his perfectly whole body, had fallen victim too. But in the end there’s no sense of triumph. The improbable pile of bodies in his wake bring Chiang no solace. For him, he loss of his brother will prove far more devastating than the loss of his right arm. He doesn’t even get to die standing up, like so many Chang Cheh heroes. He just lives on, half a man, half a soul.