The Water Margin is big. Really, really big. Even for a Shaw Brothers production directed by Chang Cheh at the height of his popularity, it’s huge. Involving just about all of the action stars on the Shaws payroll at the time, enormous sets, lots of outdoor shots and four action choreographers, it really does show off the ‘house style’ that Shaw Brothers are famous for.
The film is an adaptation of a small part of the Chinese classic of the same name (sometimes also translated as Outlaws of the Marsh or All Men Are Brothers.) Written some time in the fifteenth century, it details the exploits of 108 outlaws based in Liangshan during the time of the Sung dynasty in twelfth century China.
Very early in the film, we see a senior member of the Liangshan band killed by a pole-wielding fighter named Shi Wengong (Toshio Kurosawa). This presents a problem: though the Liangshan fighters are good at what they do, Shi Wengong is a very good fighter — so good that taking revenge will be difficult to manage. Fortunately, they know of a man who’s a match for Shi Wengong — a fighter who trained under the same master named Lu Junyi (Tamba Tetsuro). In addition to his personal prowess, Lu Junyi has a sidekick: musical prodigy and wrestler beyond compare Yen Qing (David Chiang). Though he initially doesn’t wish to help the Liangshan outlaws, Lu Junyi is forced to join them after he is betrayed by his wife and her lover, who tell the authorities of his meeting with Liangshan emissaries. He is captured, unfortunately, but the talented Yin Qing is still at large and plotting to spring him…
David Chiang is clearly king of this film. His character, smiling cockily, is good at everything — wrestling (surprising given Chiang’s small frame); music; martial arts; and impressing the ladies. He’s so earth-shatteringly awesome, he is given his own sound effect, played whenever he appears onscreen. The Water Margin is worth checking out just for Chiang’s charismatic performance. And the sound effect. Other characters also get a bit of the limelight: Fan Mei Sheng plays “The Black Whirlwind” Li Kui, who is quick to action with his twin axes, but rather slow to think and comical to watch. The two Japanese actors playing Lu Junyi and Shi Wengong do excellent jobs as well, giving grave, measured performances and looking quite comfortable with Chinese pole-fighting.
The choreography in The Water Margin is typical of Chang Cheh’s films of the time, with large-scale weapons-based melees generally fought with poles and swords. Blood’s spattered everywhere, and the focus is on dynamic group choreography, rather than displays of individual skill. True to the original story, a large part of the fighting emphasises grappling and throws, which is a bit of a departure from Chang Cheh’s other films of the time — generally, we’ve been used to seeing swordplay and more elaborate kung-fu. The action scenes are well-choreographed and well-shot, though, once you get used to seeing David Chiang throw men twice his size around!
Production values are pretty much top-notch for Shaws, with lots of huge sets, colorful costumes and a fantastic score: we get songs infused with big guitar riffs and the occasional background track that sounds like it’s been lifted directly from a Sergio Leone western. They actually fit the film rather well, and give it more of an uplifting tone than a more traditional score would.
Thoroughly recommended for fans of epic period action films and particularly fans of David Chiang (sound effect!)