Defining genre like a record label embodies a “sound,” Shaw Brothers Studios and their indelible “Shaw Scope” logo signify a distinctive product, commingling elements of ancient Chinese history and contemporary pop music into an intoxicating cocktail of pure fantasy and warm nostalgia. As the treble-laden reverberation of drum roll and bombastic wail of horn cue a separation from reality, the viewer is transported to a hypnogogic universe outside of time, constructed of ornamental colors and nurtured on archaic nobility, but spoken in an unnatural, asynchronous, English-language voice. The surrealistic properties of these divergent components thrive despite their modesty and artificiality, seamlessly coalescing with the anti-gravity choreography of the martial arts, spawning an action cinema fit for the theater and drunk on the sensuality of acrobatics and operatic gesture.
Distorting the rules of auditory perception, wuxia (Chinese sword-fighting fiction) benefits from an excess of foley work, boasting breathing, kicking and panting that resonate with the clang of a blacksmith’s hammer and guttural grunt of a wild hog. These hyper-realistic sonic properties are accentuated by tight zooms and swift editing, adding urgency to each overstated facial reaction and repurposing vivid fits of violence into the petit allegro of ballet.
Juxtaposed beneath this overstimulated and ceaseless aural onslaught are muted, cerulean scrims and hoary terrain, inspiring a glacial chill and morphing the bones of obvious sets into realms of otherworldly mystique. By constructing an insular environment through obvious artifice, art director Ching-Shen Chen manipulates hue and space to fabricate a broad expanse, using clean lines and deep purples to imply depth and add ceremony to humble surroundings.
Changes in landscape also function to fracture the action into narrative signposts, condensing complex ideas into tight areas and aligning location with theme through subconscious hinting. Though plot progression isn’t necessarily the focal point of Cheh Chang’s work, often ending up as red herring in an endless parade of spirited sparring, he does understand how the mind operates and he treats each snowdrift and flickering candle as a subtle reminder of grief and loss for his angst-ridden lead.
Bearing his father’s sacrifices at the altar of honor, Fang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu) wrestles between seduction and repulsion with the warrior’s code, using his confusion over his father’s death in battle as an excuse for continual confrontation. Crippled by seething rage and a desire for vengeance, Fang’s emotional handicap symbolizes the foolish pride of the powerful men that reared him and the severing of his right arm during swordplay externally manifests his cerebral maladies.
Chang’s idealized, nearly pastoral, vision of Imperial China romanticizes Fang’s dismemberment into a marvel of style and vision, simulating the dizziness and delirium of warfare into a swirling kaleidoscope of polychromatic tones, nestling horror just beneath the warm glow of hanging lanterns and frail outline of frostbitten trees. The contrast struck between the aesthetics of his shot composition and viscera of his combat mirror the mentality of his characters, reflecting their antiquated alignment of class, wealth and fighting prowess. By injecting the subversive element of sexuality, Chang signifies betrothal as the remedy for a history of violence, imparting the sentimental sweep of the Hollywood love story into androcentric cinema and giving brutality a fitting rebirth as benign, graceful motion.
The One-Armed Swordsman (Shaw Brothers Ltd., 1967)
Directed by Cheh Chang
Written by Cheh Chang and Kuang Ni
Photographed by Cheng San Yuan