(Du bei chuan wang / Yu Wang / 1971)
It’s almost entirely motion; even closer to ballet than most. It's a masterpiece of economy where the only things present are absolutely essential in keeping this well-oiled machine in motion. I find it more interesting, however, to view the work among the greatest articulations of a nationalist ideology—boiled down to absolute necessity but never crude, always lyrical. This is most apparent from the opening, where the attempted theft of a bird in a diner involving three groups of people becomes the catalyst for a war among once-peaceful schools of martial arts. National foundation myths underscore even the most superficial elements.
The film’s heroes are never in doubt, but it is the hierarchy of villains that is most alluring. The master of the bad guy school is less a villain for wanting to defend his honor (however misinformed), but for allowing foreigners into the country when he recruits mercenaries from distant Asian lands to destroy the good guy school. And even among them, the Japanese are by far the worst; their Judo master is quite literally a demon. Also of interest are the black-face Yogi and the backwater spiritualism of the Tibetan and Thai warriors. Not only is The One-Armed Boxer fantastic cinema, it is an indispensable almanac of mainstream Taiwanese/Chinese social geography.
*A good friend lent me a spindle of classic and favorite martial arts films (a serious blind spot for me). So you may see a inordinate amount of these popping up around here over the next couple months.