Shaw Brothers Saturday: ‘Water Margin’ embraces the notion of being ‘epic’

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The Water Margin

Directed by Chang Cheh and Wu Ma

Screenplay by Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang

Hong Kong, 1972


However many qualities may be admired about the martial arts classics from the late 60s and early 70s, their scale is not one that frequently produces feelings of awe from within the viewer. In the majority of such cases, while the films are wildly entertaining for their crazy storylines, memorable figures and detailed combat sequences, few of them have a truly epic feel about them. Chang Cheh attempted to rectify that situation in 1972 with his historical motion picture, The Water Margin.

Before the story commences, the viewer is treated to a scrolling text explaining that The Water Margin is, in truth, an important historical text in China. Written in the 14th century, it recounts the tales of various Chinese outlaws turned heroes and their battles against corruption and other evil entities in the 12th century. The 1972 movie concentrates on chapters 64-68 of this voluminous work. In it, audiences are treated to the story of how two well respected and highly skilled individuals, Mr. Lu (Teusuro Tamba) and his adoptive son, Xiaoyi (David Chiang), or ‘Young Prodigy’, became strong allies for the Liang Shan outlaw gang who were in the midst of a terrific ongoing battle of wits and skill against the powerful Shi Wengong (Toshio Kurosawa). The Liang Shan gang have earned themselves a notorious reputation, and when Shi Wengong vanquishes their leader, Chao Gai (Tung Lam), the de facto leader Song Jiang (Ku Feng) concludes that only Mr Lu and Xiaoyi are gifted enough in forms of combat  to help them properly avenge the death and their befallen, ‘heavenly’ leader. Thus begins a long and arduous journey to have them join their cause.

Chang Che and Shaw Brothers decided to put out all the stops for Margin, one of if not the largest Shaw film ever. Whereas most previous movies relied heavily on interior sets, in the case of  Margin, it was time to take the actors outside for real, resulting in multiple scenes featuring countless extras combating on vast, open landscapes.One need only watch the opening scene of the movie, in which a series of war ships arrive at port of Shi Wengong’s massive, mountainous compound. A platoon of soldiers and emissaries emerge from the craft, hop onto their trusty steeds and proceed to race up the mountain as the opening credits appear. The scene lasts at least four minutes. Four minutes of about 30 men on horseback riding up an elaborate, twisty road up a mountain with little huts and barracks at every turn and more extras dressed as guards in each of those huts and barracks. It might be overkill to prove a point, but there is little denying how amazing the sequence is. The concluding battle sequence is almost as impressive just for how many characters engage in combat, many of them with their own individualistic fighting techniques, in addition to the extras who pose as regular soldiers and do battle amongst each other.

From a purely visual standpoint, Water Margin is epic on several levels, and it hits home the point in more ways than one with regards to just how grand the picture is, sometimes in near comical fashion. Take for instance the sheer size of the cast how and they are presented. The five actors named in the plot synopsis above consist of maybe only 1/5 of the actors who get on screen credits throughout the film. Literally throughout the film. Virtually every time a new character appears on screen for the first time, even if they shall only play a small part, the actor in question earns a screen credit. This makes sense at the beginning of the film. The viewers quickly discover that the number of characters is, compared to ordinary films, practically innumerable. The best part is that this continues after the opening minutes. There are characters that appear fifteen, twenty, twenty-five minutes after the start of the film and the new actors in question receive on screen credits! The acting is on par with what we have come to expect from Shaw Brothers material. Faced with juggling so vast an array of characters, the script has each is written in broad strokes. The actors, in turn, do as well as they can with the material awarded to them.

The music is another interesting topic of discussion. Shaw scores are mostly of the classical symphonic variety, and here again the film plays things differently, but in a brilliant fashion that takes the viewer very much by surprise at first. There are only a handful of musical cues which appear, perhaps three or four at most, but most have a flute-jazz and funk beat to them, sometimes accompanied by a sweet female vocal simply singing softly a series of ‘ooh oohs.’ There is even a bit of like rock in there as well for good measure. By regular standards, the music might feel terribly out of place, and yet, when added into this grand, massive movie in which character emotions run so very high, it fits sumptuously despite it all.

The big question remains: does bigger necessarily equal better? It is tempting to answer affirmatively given how joyous it is to experience all of the elements previously discussed. Unfortunately the story, the most important ingredient of all, is the one element of the film that gets the shaft. There are nevertheless redeeming qualities. For one, the film refuses to make any of the characters genuinely good or villainous. In fact, it may be safest to write that everybody is a little bit evil. Shi Wengong is obviously supposed to be the antagonist of the piece, and he does behave as such for the most, but he is not over the top evil. The protagonists are in fact the outlaws, and their way of dealing with problems is very much in touch with how a bunch of highly skilled martial artist gang members would,  demonstrating absolutely no mercy nor compassion when the circumstances demand it. The ambiguous nature of the characters makes for an intriguing picture, although beyond that the film falters. Once the Liang Shan gang makes contact with Mr Lu, the latter’s accountant conspires with his wife (who is cheating on him) to denounce Mr Lu’s new alliance with the outlaws. This results in a series of occasions when Mr Lu is jailed by authorities, then temporarily rescued by Xiaoyi, only to be re-captured by authorities shortly after. Mr. Lu is even sentenced to death twice in the film. Needless to say, it all becomes a bit redundant after all, not to mention that Chang Che inserts a few smaller, needless subplots, such as a love angle for David Chiang ‘s Xiaoyi character. There is enough there to retain the viewer’s interest, but the script on the whole meanders.  How ironic that in a film which has so many big elements to it, it is the story that seems to do so little.

Margin offers amusement in a great many ways, sometimes for genuinely great reason, such as the scope, the cast and the decision to have ambiguous characters populate the world, other times for unexpected reasons, as with the music. One only wishes a superior script had been concocted. That would have made the film even more epic.

The story continues in…All Men Are Brothers!

-Edgar Chaput

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