Thursday, May 24, 2018

Chang Cheh at the Quad: The Water Margin

Like Journey to the West, it is not practical to adapt all of Shi Nai’an’s classic 14th Century novel in one shot. Filmmakers usually just cherry-pick certain chapters. Chang Cheh and co-screenwriter Ni Kuang chose chapters 64-68, out of an even 100. It was a logical decision, because there is a big Kung Fu battle at the end of Cheh’s Shaw Brothers production, The Water Margin which screens as part of the Quad’s current retrospective, Vengeance is His: Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore, co-presented by the New York Asian Film Festival.

At this point, most of the colorful heroes of Liangshan Marsh have already assembled, Avengers-style. The only ones left to join are Lu Junyi and his ward-protégé, Yan Qing—sort of like Batman and Robin, to mix the superhero metaphor. Lu is a minor lord with unimpeachable integrity and killer Kung Fu skills, but he wants no truck with outlaws. Unfortunately, Lu still winds up arrested by the local military governor, for allowing Liangshan emissaries free passage after they unsuccessfully try to recruit him. Instead, the militia does the Liangshans’ recruiting for them.

A good portion of Water Margin is devoted to Yan Qing efforts to save his master, teaming up with various Liangshan heroes. Eventually, they will face the forces of Shi Wengong, a warlord loyal to the oppressive government. It will be a real grudge match, because Shi set off the entire narrative arc, by killing the officially recognized leader of the Liangshan heroes. Of course, Lu will face off against him, but four of Shi’s best students will also square-off solo against four top heroes, including Lady “Green Snake” Hu.

Even at its time and even more so in retrospect, Water Margin just overflows with well-known HK actors (and a few from Japan), like a Shaw Brothers Expendables. It is really impossible to keep everyone straight after only one viewing, even though Chang’s super-scripts helpfully identify each character and actor playing him during their initial entrance, even well into the third act.

It hardly matters, because Water Margin is such high-spirited fun. The film starts with a nearly ten-minute drunken bacchanal back at Liangshan Marsh, which really sets the tone for the rest of the film. The groovy Hammond organ-sounding soundtrack also keeps the film bopping along at a healthy trot.

As Yan Qing, David Chiang’s laidback presence and on-screen athleticism wear well over the course of film and nicely compliment the righteous Lu. Tetsuro Tamba (best known as Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice) is terrifically steely and commanding as the strictly-business Lu. Half a dozen Shaw regulars make the most of their moments as heroes, but Lily Ho Lili definitely stands out as Lady Hu, for obvious reasons (especially since this is a Chang film).

Water Margin is definitely a Shaw Brothers movie. It isn’t afraid of getting its hands during in a throw-down. Yet, it also can be considered a forerunner to big budget, epic-scale martial arts spectacles, like Crouching Tiger and Red Cliff. It is all kinds of rousing (even though the narrative is largely structured around a series of Liangshan foul-ups). Highly recommended for martial arts fans, Water Margin screens this Saturday night (5/26), as part of Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore at the Quad.