Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Water Margin (Shui Hu Zhuan, 1972)

It's the first post of 2017 good people, and Hai!Karate returns with a flick that might very well be timely to those up on certain things. This particular martial arts movie is one of my chosen favorites, from a year that would see the Shaw Brothers Studios capture the attention of American audiences heavily. The movie in question? From 1972, The Water Margin!! Let's not delay, and dive right into the plot and the reasons why this film is one of Hong Kong cinema's powerhouses.

The origins of The Water Margin come from a highly renowned Chinese classical novel of the same name. This text was written in the 14th century, and details the exploits of a band of 108 fighters who meet at Liang Shan to fight against evil and tyranny on all fronts - including against the Sung government. The leader of these fighters? Song Jiang. They would eventually come to terms with the Sung government and gain amnesty in the 12th century which led to them being mobilized to repel foreign invaders. But not without a series of uprisings and clashes, which are laid out in some versions that swell the novel to 100 chapters. Other versions omit these narratives, and as such there is a 70-chapter version which was translated by the famed American novelist and author of The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck. Another version has 120 chapters with all accounts included. For the Shaw Studios production, the wellspring behind the plot lies in chapters 64 through 68.

The movie begins with the ambush of "Heavenly King" Chao Kai, the leader of the Liangshan Heroes by "Golden Spear" Shi Wengong. Golden Spear is requested to perform this act at the behest of the local Sung magistrate. When news of Heavenly King's death reaches Liangshan, the heroes are distraught and plan for revenge. In his stead, seniors "Welcome Rain" Song Jiang and "Clever Star" Wu Yong come up with an idea that will serve two purposes - to gain a new leader for the Outlaws of The Marsh and to defeat Golden Spear. The plan? Enlist the services of the noted pugilist - and Golden Spear's former classmate - Jade Unicorn, Lu Junyi. They also note that if successful, they will also gain the services of Junyi's servant, "The Prodigy" Yen Ching. Clever Star and "Black Whirlwind" Li Kui are tasked to go to the town where Jade Unicorn resides.

Both men arrive in the town just as Jade Unicorn is being set up to go to jail and be executed - all a plot cooked up by his treasurer, who is sleeping with Jade Unicorn's wife who felt neglected by his heavy martial arts training. They appeal to him through The Prodigy, who is making plans to free his master on his own. These men ultimately combine forces and set the stage for the showdown between Golden Spear's clan and the Liangshan Heroes.

The Water Margin bowed to cinemas in Hong Kong in 1972 as a crowning epic from the Shaw Studios. It was so much of an epic that THREE directors helmed the film, with the legend Chang Cheh at the forefront with Wu Ma and Pao Hsueh-Li. The cast assembled was a who's who of cinema in the region at that time. You had David Chiang as Yen Ching, a flashy heartthrob who could throw hands with the best of them. Yueh Hua as Leopard Spear. The Japanese action and noir actor Tetsuro Tamba as Lu Junyi. Chen Kuan Tai. Lily Ho. Ku Feng. Even Danny Lee, who you may know from the John Woo classic The Killer. When I say epic, I mean EPIC. Let's go to Tamba for a second. It's astounding that he was tapped to play the role of Jade Unicorn but not totally surprising. The Water Margin was also well regarded in Japan, and would be the basis for a television series there soon after this movie aired. Tamba had gained worldwide attention as Tiger Tanaka in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice five years prior. In addition, he also appeared in the classic film based on Lafcadio Hearn's collection of Japanese ghost tales, Kwaidan. Interestingly enough, Golden Spear is played by another prominent Japanese actor, Toshio Kurosawa. No relation to the legendary director, Kurosawa had built a solid career to this point. From this he would go on to play a pivotal role in the cult classic Lady Snowblood...

The Water Margin became a film that caught the eye of the West - and led to a re-release stateside that took a curious turn. See, I first saw this film years ago as the filler movie after a doubleheader of NBA games on TNT. There wasn't any iconic Shaw Brothers logo lead-in - and it was billed as Seven Blows Of The Dragon. This Western re-cut of the film is entertaining but has some parts that make you scratch your head. You've got your requisite voice dubbing that can verge on comical. The musical cues don't stray too much from the original version. BUT this US version runs 79 minutes. Which means that they cut out over close to an HOUR of the HK version, which I didn't peep until afterwards. Word has it that Roger Corman was part of the revamp - I haven't seen much to fully verify that. The film re-naming was essentially what studios here did in order to lure audiences into the movie houses to these films, and the trend began with King Boxer being re-titled Five Fingers Of Death.

The flick is well-paced and composed throughout. Cheh and the other directors do a great job of letting the characters flourish in relation to the plot. Now, you might be asking about other characters who show up in the movie. The Water Margin would be shot with three other films in that time period - Pursuit, The Delightful Forest and All Men Are Brothers. However, the latter film was released some time after. In terms of action, it's worth noting that David Chiang's acrobatic prowess was engaged in a totally unique way with more wresting grips and throws incorporated into Yen Ching's fighting style. Cheh and the action directors took pains to highlight this with slow-motion filming, and this probably led US studio execs to make that the core as well. Is there a good deal of bloodshed? This is a Shaw flick- that's like asking if Allen Iverson ever had a nasty dribble. People get cut down with ruthless zeal here.

The Water Margin is one of the best films that the Shaw Studios has ever made. From Black Whirlwind's cry "THE MOUNTAIN BROTHERS ARE ALL HERE!!!" to the funky musical tinges throughout, to the sense of satisfaction upon seeing the Liangshan Heroes arrive, you will find yourself wrapped up in just how the story of the people uniting to fight against injustice and evil is laid out in glorious '70's fashion. You can actually find the original version now on DVD, and I highly recommend it. It's not one of the most talked about films from the Shaw Brothers, but once you watch it you realize it should be.