The Water Margin (1972)
120 min, color, Mandarin (English subtitles)
Review © 2003 Branislav L. SlantchevAs if I Kuang's own screenplays were not confusing enough, this time the tireless Chang Cheh employs the no less tireless (?) writer to produce an epic adaptation of an epic 14th century novel about 108 outlaws who repeatedly defeated the Song imperial forces sent against them. Fortunately, the Chang and I Kuang only restrict themselves to four chapters (64-68) out of who-knows how many. Unfortunately, they do decide to include all 108 Liang Shan bandits/heroes in the film!
|Lily Ho is Tigress (obviously)||Kurosawa Toshio begins the feud|
I knew I was in trouble as soon as the credits started. One is always in trouble when the cast of characters takes full 10 minutes to get introduced, one by one, in meticulous succession. Who, the hell, is going to remember all those names? (Still, very useful for identifying some rather obscure actors.) The film is a smorgasbord of fashionable and then-current Shaw actors. Almost everyone of note, and quite a few of no note, is here. The intro itself is quite entertaining because it is all set to Uriah Heep's "Salisbury" (uncredited), which actually turns out to be the film's basic score!
|David Chiang, a man of many talents||Tamba Tetsuro begins the 3,000 mile march|
Basically, there's this formidable master of kung fu, Golden Spear (Kurosawa Toshio), who simply hates outlaws. The reason for the hatred must have been in one of the previous 63 chapters. He is ordered to kill the chief bandit of Liang Shan, which he promptly does, barely 2 minutes after the long intro. This sets in motion the never-rusted wheels of a deadly blood feud because the Chief ungraciously asks his followers to avenge his death.
|Lee Wan-Chung always the sleazy official||The 98th escape attempt fails; these guys suck|
The problem is that the followers, although numerous, all suck because they are afraid that Golden Spear will spear them all (despite the fact that Yueh Hua held his ground against him just fine). So the outlaws decide to enlist the services of Jade Dragon (Tamba Tetsuro), who is righteous and has studied under the same master as the other Japanese dude. Jade also has a sidekick, the ubiquitous David Chiang, who is "the best wrestler" and can also play the flute (photographic evidence enclosed).
|Steamy sex scene||Hsiao Hsiao, good-natured whore
(aren't they all?)
Jade is really dedicated to training. I mean really dedicated. So much, in fact, that he has left his butler Li Ku (Tien Ching) perform the husbandly duties with his wife Lady Chia (Ling Ling). Somewhat confusingly, Jade is not aware that the butler is satisfying his own wife even though it should have been obvious that someone like Ling Ling won't be going to bed alone two nights in a row. The ungrateful lovers plot to get rid of Jade and when he rebuffs the outlaws' attempt to recruit him the butler informs the authorities that Jade is sheltering bandits.
|Admittedly, a pickle||David Chiang, the Human Cannonball|
The authorities, perennially sleazy, corrupt, and incompetent in truly Confucian fashion, are played by the appropriately sleazy, corrupt, and incompetent Lee Wan-Chung, who extorts money to spare Jade's life but is too afraid to murder him anyway. Then there are about 252 escape attempts, which all miserably fail, leaving a huge question mark on the quality of Jade's constant training. I have never seen so many unsuccessful runs in any other film, certainly not in one by Chang Cheh. The Governor finally gets tired of chasing the pesky Jade every day and decided to kill him, which is again thwarted by Wang Chung, who promptly ends up in jail alongside Jade, whom he was trying to save.
|Ti Lung slays while Lily Ho stares||Sword-crossed lovers (Tien Ching & Ling Ling)|
There's a lot to be said for realism here. However, everything quickly goes out the window when about 10 of the 108 outlaws stage a rescue operation (this time successfully) and help Jade escape the clutches of the government, which bizarrely lets them go without pursuit. At this point, the whole subplot with Jade being framed by the butler recedes into the background, and the original plot with Golden Spear comes to the fore, although not before the unfaithful wife and the butler are both dispatched to wherever true Confucians go after death.
|Gratuitous shot of Ling Ling||David Chiang removes Ling Ling's tonsils|
What follows is the obligatory final battle scene in which all bad guys die and (for a change) none of the good ones do. It is actually quote tastefully done although I did not understand why Lily Ho needed Cheng Lui's help to kill one guy. Feminists beware! The usual Chang Cheh misogynistic tendencies are here in full sway: Ling Ling is the unfaithful wife who brings about the downfall of her husband, Lily Ho can't even slice a guy in two without the help of a manly hand, and Hsiao Hsiao is the prostitute with the golden heart (although this is a good thing). Jade defeats Golden Spear (or actually, GS is defeated by David Chiang, but who's counting) and everyone rides over the top of a hill, into the sunset, getting ready for the sequel, All Men Are Brothers.
|Lily Ho continues to be Tigress (obviously)||Kurosawa & Tamba slug it out Japanese style|
The Celestial Pictures DVD is very good. A clean anamorphic video transfer at the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin soundtrack, and very readable English subtitles. The extras include photo galleries, interviews (Ti Lung and Lily Ho), documentary about Chang Cheh, trailers, and talent files. The film is very famous and there's plenty of drama/heroics in addition to the blood-letting. Heartily recommended, if for nothing more, then for the Uriah Heep score!
October 29, 2003