The one-armed sworsman is a fixture of Chinese cinema, from the original Shaw Brothers trilogy directed by Chang Cheh and starring first Wang Yu, then David Chiang, to countless crossovers (including Zatoichi vs. the One-armed Swordsman) and variants (for instance The One-armed Swordsmen or The One-armed Swordswoman). But by 1994, when Daniel Lee’s What Price Survival was released, it had all but disappeared, due in part to the fact it had been done to death, and in part to the fact that Wu Xia Pan’s and costumed epics in general weren’t that popular anymore during the eighties.
What Price Survival is Daniel Lee’s very first film and, as he wrote it, one of his most personal. Its setting is contemporary, but in a timeless way by which people still carry swords. Visually, as with any Daniel Lee film (save for the odious Black Mask), it is a treat : gorgeous snowy landscape captured by Lee’s DP of choice Tony Cheung, dozens of men in black long coats wielding swords, two lovers playfully fighting through lonely rays of light in an abandoned mansion… Narratively however, the struggle for coherence begins.
The leaders of two rival martial arts schools, played by David Chiang (the titular one-armed swordsman in the third film of Chang Cheh original trilogy) and Norman Chu, fight each other in a duel. Chiang is the strongest, but Chu wins the fight by cheating. Even though it is plain and obvious for everybody in attendance (namely David Chiang’s students) that treachery was involved, Chu asks for Chiang’s son as a reward. A ridiculous proposition, to which Chiang answers….yes. It is the first of many head-scratching plot turns in the film. Years later, Chiang’s son, having been brought up by Chu, is now an adult, and is intent on getting revenge on Chiang, who according to his adoptive father is responsible for his mother’s death. A big lie of course, but a lie that Chiang doesn’t even try to rectify upon seeing his long-lost son asking for a duel. You get an idea of how disjointed and incoherent it can get, and it gets worse, but I won’t go into it.
There are many swordfights, some beautifully rendered, some edited in such epilleptic, seemingly haphazard fashion as to be unwatchable. But a good grounding force for the film is provided by the cast. An ageing David Chiang is particularly poignant as the doomed father, the beautiful Charlie Yeung makes for a good love interest, Norman Chu is as hissable a villain as can be, and another Shaw Brothers veteran, Damian Lau, brings some added class to the proceedings, even in a useless, tacked-on role. But where, you might ask, does the one-armed swordsman fit into this beautiful, almost infuriating mess ? After all, the film’s original title means literally ‘One-Armed Swordsman 1994’… Well contrary to the initial films where the arm-severing set the film in motion, here on the contrary it is merely a footnote.
Long Story Short : Beautiful but incoherent, though sometimes beautifully incoherent. Daniel Lee’s first film has “first film” written all over it : intriguing but clumsily handled. **