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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Water Margin
The Water Margin
Image // Unrated // November 7, 2006
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ian Jane | posted November 27, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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P R I N T
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The Movie:

In twelfth century China, the land is controlled by a corrupt government and the roaming armies that they manage to employ, lead by the sinister General Shih Wen Kung (Toshiro Kurosawa). Luckily, for the sake of the people, there is a group of one hundred and eight warriors who oppose the tyrants in power who go by the name of The Mountain Brothers (which makes sense, seeing as they live up in the mountains and all) and who are lead by Sung Chiang (Feng Ku).

Although the rebels have, thus far, done a fine job of prodding at the powers that be, Sung Chiang becomes concerned for his men when he finds out that Shih Wen is working for the enemy. He figures that the only way to stop Shih Wen is to call upon his old comrade, Lu Chun (Japanese cinema legend Tetsuro Tamba), who is off working on his form and practicing his martial arts in a small town. Sung Chiang makes the trek in hopes of convincing his old friend to join the ranks of his warriors but Lu Chun's son, Yen Ching (David Chiang), steps in and makes a mess of his plan. Soon enough Lu Chin's assistant causes problems for employer by making him out to be a traitor. When this happens, Yen Ching has a change of heart and he winds up working alongside Sung Chiang and his men to spring his father, who has been wrongly imprisoned, out of jail and take down General Shih Wen at the same time.

Interesting in that it uses both Chinese and Japanese actors in prominent roles, The Water Margin is the very definition of 'epic.' While more modern films like Hero show us the modern take on the grand scale martial arts film, this 1972 effort does a truly fantastic job of bringing together a very large cast without sacrificing character development or losing the heart of the story. Obviously some characters get more screen time than others but things are actually fleshed out really well here and considering that this film adapts a few select chapters of a book and not the entire book, the film tells a surprisingly cohesive story. If a strong story and an interesting cast weren't enough, then the visuals ought to seal the deal for anyone who is one the fence about this one. The cinematography in The Water Margin is very impressive, with the camera doing justice to the colorful period costumes and massive sets/locations that the film was shot on and around.

While some might be put off by a two-hour long subtitled foreign film based on an old book (there are those who just don't dig this stuff), the fact of the matter is that The Water Margin is paced so well that you won't even notice the longer than average running time. The story is also quite accessible, in that at its core it is a simple tale of good versus evil, it just happens to be told here with plenty of visual flair and fantastic visuals. As far as the action goes, again, the movie delivers and fans of Chang Cheh's heroic bloodshed films won't be disappointed particularly with the ending. While the hand to hand combat scenes isn't as flamboyant here as in other productions, the weapons fighting is top notch and very creative and more so than the hand to hand scenes, these parts really stand out.

Note: This film was released in the United States by Warner Brothers in a re-edited version under the title Seven Blows Of The Dragon with an English dub track overtop of the original Mandarin audio. The version contained on this DVD is the original Mandarin version that clocks in at one hundred and twenty five minutes long, as opposed to the Seven Blows cut that runs approximately eighty-minutes in length. It would have been nice to see both cuts, but one can imagine that there were likely licensing issues at work that would prohibit this from being a realistic option. Regardless, the full-length version is obviously the preferable one and it's great to see it given a domestic release as a special edition DVD. It should also be said that Chang Cheh followed this film with a sequel, All Men Are Brothers, a few years later in 1975.

Video:

The 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on this release is good, but it isn't perfect. Again, those with larger progressive scan set-ups will no doubt pick up on some combing and mild motion blurring, marring what is otherwise a very nice picture. If you can look past that problem (and really, it's there but it's should ruin the movie for anyone and it certainly isn't as pronounced here as it was on the first few Image/Shaw releases), you'll find that the image is clean, clear and strong. Transfer issues aside, the color reproduction is quite good and there's a really nice level of both foreground and background detail present from start to finish. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural and there are no compression artifacts to complain about nor is there an abundance of film grain or debris noticeable on the picture.

Sound:

Image has supplied two different audio tracks for this release – the original Mandarin Mono track, and a Mandarin 5.1 Surround Sound track both of which have optional English subtitles available. The Mono track sounds closer to how one can assume the movie would have sounded in theaters, while the Surround Sound mix adds some interesting directionality to the score and the sound effects. The 5.1 track spreads things out a bit and if you're a 5.1 buff then you've got what you're looking for but otherwise the old school track is the more appropriate of the two. The subtitles don't contain any obvious typos or mistakes and are clean, clear and easy to read.

Extras:

The three featurettes that were created for the R3 release have been ported over to this domestic edition which means that in the supplemental material section you'll find a documentary entitled The Master: Chang Cheh which provides a brief overview of the late director's career. This piece features interviews with people who worked with and were influenced by Chang Cheh was well as clips from a few of his films. At eighteen minutes in length it is substantial, but with a body of work as large as this director's it is hardly definitive. Either way, it does make for interesting viewing and it's a nice companion piece to the feature on this disc.

Also ported over from the R3 are the interviews with David Chiang and with Ti Lung. The Chiang interview runs for roughly seven and a half minutes in length and it covers things like doing stunt work, how he met and came to work with Chang Cheh, and how he came to be a leading man for the Shaw Brothers studio. Ti Lung's interview clocks in at just under nine-minutes in length and it covers his early days in cinema, how he enlisted in the Shaw Brothers school, and how he was influenced by action movies. He talks about his various roles, what he liked about certain aspects of the films that he worked on, and how he still lives in the house he bought when he was working for the Shaw Brothers studio even though he no longer works there. Both interviews use clips from various films to illustrate things and are quite interesting.

Image has also included an 'extended love scene' which is a scene that was taken from the edited version of the film that Warner Brothers released domestically in the United States. Though the print quality isn't on par with the feature, it presented here in anamorphic widescreen and it runs for one minute and twenty-nine seconds in total. It's interesting to check out not only for the bonus nudity(!) but also to sample the English dubbing that was used on the American version of the film. Rounding out the extra features are the same batch of Shaw Brothers trailers that we've seen on the earlier discs in the line as well as trailers for other Asian films either available now or to be available soon from Image Entertainment (there are no subtitles for any of the trailers), animated menus, and chapter stops for the main feature.

Included inside the keepcase which houses the DVD is a booklet of liner notes from Kenneth Woo whose essay does a thorough job of explaining the origins of the story, how it was taken from a few specific chapters of the novel that the movie was based on and how Japanese actors were brought into the production to fill various roles. It's an interesting look at the history of the film, and having the original theatrical one sheet reproduced on the front of the booklet is a nice touch.

Final Thoughts:

Even if the transfer suffers from the same issues that all of the Image/Shaw Brothers releases have suffered from so far in the line, The Water Margin still comes recommended. It's a very well directed film with fantastic visuals, strong performances, and a genuinely epic scope. Highly recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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