AKA ZAN SHEN TAN
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 23RD OCT: from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 100 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
1556, in the waning days of the Ming dynasty, Japanese marauders led by famed swordsman Shinobu Hashimoto raid villages on the Chinese coast. Wandering swordsman Hsia Feng arrives at the town of Lei-Ha where a group of the foreign thugs are demanding payment or they will kill everyone there, and dispatches all of them. This has caused the town to be even more in danger, so Hsiao agrees to help defend it, and sets out to recruit the best help he can get from the locals….
Well it’s a cracking title for a start, though I guess they could have called this film Five Martial Artists or The Magnificent Five. Beach Of The War Gods is one of several movies which basically remakes Seven Samurai, and I’m surprised that there haven’t been more; after all, it’s a formula which always seems to work [okay, I haven’t seen, for example, Seven Magnificent Gladi1tors, but I’m sure it’s fun]. This passion project of director / writer / star Jimmy Wang Yu relocates the action to Ming Dynasty China and the world of martial arts, and right from the offset it’s very clear that he poured his heart and soul into it, with a great deal of attention to detail and direction which reaches heights Wang Yu was never able to reach again. There are even a lot of memorable shots which, even fans of this kind of film will admit, isn’t the kind of thing that you tend to get, or indeed look out for, unless you’re watching something by one of more “artsy” directors such as King Hu. Yes, it’s possible to be disappointed in the fact that there are only five magnificent ones, there are no female character at all, and if anything the film is too short, with the section between the helpers just having been recruited and the big battle being something that could have done with expansion. However, there’s a strong sense of time and place. Wang Yu is supercool as a Zatoichi-type figure, and the fighting is mostly top class for the period, thougb of course one can but chuckle at the strong influence of Japanese movies of the chambara kind yet the film again having the Japanese portrayed not just as the enemy again but a cheating and non-nuanced, one. The half hour-long battle, despite the budget not being able to stretch to as many extras as were probably needed to make things totally convincing, is superbly staged and sustained throughout its length. As I watched it, I wondered why this film wasn’t better known because of this.
Sea waves crash over rocks followed by shots of the Beach itself while onscreen text sets the scene, to be followed by a narrator who adds s few more details, such as thousands of Chinese having been slaughtered and a resistance movement forming. The introduction of our hero is a great one. He’s first seen as a tiny figure dwarfed in the distance dwarfed by the acres of sand of the beach, while on the right hand side is some kind of slab. A much closer shot reveals it to be some kind of gravestone, The English dubbed version, which is, of course, the one that I mostly watched, doesn’t let you know what the words on it are, but the Mandarin dubbed version [it’s worth remembering that the Chinese-language versions of these silently shot films were dubbed too and not usually by the same actors so they aren’t totally authentic] has text show up to tell us. Feng looks at it then carries on walking, the music becoming seriously amazing as a distorted electric guitar and a jew’s harp take over. He enters the town where it seems a lot of people have already left, goes into an inn and orders meat and noodles, and explains that he’s headed for the nearby town of Hang Zhou, to be told that the Japanese have captured it. At a nearby temple some men are discussing whether to flee, fight or rely on a corrupt military, neatly setting the scene a bit more. Then a great high-angle shot shows some Japanese coming into the town, attacking the townsfolk and bunching them together. They want 20 000 tokens of silver for their Northern Army, or they will kill. Fighting ensures, and one Japanese gets a chopstick in the bed from Feng, but the latter sure takes his time intervening. Feng faces off against seven swordsmen and their leader Shan Mao, but is good with a blade himself, so has little trouble dispatching them while Mao flees. Quite frankly, this introductory act is simply perfect, I don’t see how it could have been better!
“You can be sure there’ll be back” says one of the villagers, but Feng is a decent sort. “You can relax, I started this, I’ll stay here and finish it”. Turns out that Feng’s uncle is in Hang Zhou, but is about to be executed for not going over to the Japanese side. Feng realises that he’s going to need help, so he goes off to recruit helpers. First up is Ironman Shao, who we first see selling swords without asking permission to do so. This of course results in a fight with either the authorities or some yobs – it’s hard to tell – but the main thing is that Shao easily wins with considerable prowess with both sword and fist, and is seen by Feng, who signs him up there and then. At a nearby inn, assassin Leng Ping is having a drink when one of several bullies spills his drink on his coat. In a direct variant of a classic moment from both Yojimbo and A Fistful Of Dollars, Ping says to the fool “you spoilt my coat, get down on your knees and apologise”. Of course he refuses, causing Ping to use a few of the many throwing knives he has on his personage. Feng sees all this and is suitably impressed, but Ping turns his offer down because he’s not getting paid. Next, Feng and Shao encounter two kung fu masters engaged in a duel; Hung, who’s an expert in fighting with shields, and spear master Li. They soon convince them to set aside their differences and join the fight against the Japanese, and, to make things even better, Ping has changed his mind and comes to join them as well. Huug and Li both have men, which helps also, but the remaining men of Lei-Ha need to be trained into a formidable fighting force before the Japanese, led by a master swordsman who had disappeared for ten years, return.
After the brilliantly choreographed opening fight which is the closest I’ve seen ’70s Hong Kong cinema get to the comparable Japanese kind, the brawls that follow are deliberately very brief to enhance the battle sequence, though the film’s extreme brevity works both for and against it. Only Feng and Ping registers as full characters, and we could have done with a few more moments of quiet with our heroes before they go into action so that we care more about them if they get injured or worse. The training of the townsfolk is almost glossed over. Yet there’s also something to be said for just getting to the point, and boy does that battle soar, right from its preamble with the noise made by the torchlit Japanese army at night increasing and the army then splitting into three in a terrific shot; we’re almost convinced that this army is big. There’s a lot of emphasis on the Japanese preparation for battle and then the tactics on both sides; this isn’t just a load of men rushing at each other. The propensity for traps by the outnumbered Chinese leads to the film’s one major humorous moment, when the Japanese resort to crawling on the ground while comical music plays on the soundtrack. Wang Yu realised that to sustain such a long fight one must have variety and ups and downs, though it’s perhaps most notable how the swordplay is of a far higher quality than usual for Shaw Brothers; even including people fighting in backgrounds, who do seem to be actually fighting instead of jabbing at each other. It’s also great how several prominent characters battle each other before Wang Yu battles his favourite screen opponent Fei L again, in what is probably both their best fight technically and in terms of setting, much of it taking place in a windmill. Another highlight is with a bunch of men roll all over the place as they attack their opponents; even if it’s sort, it’s cheer-worthy!
Of course there is some blood but the film seems to be holding back in this regard, with potentially gory kills cut to the bone; maybe Wang Yu was going for a more family audience here. He certainly seems to have been trying to make a quality product more than with any other film he made [granted, I haven’t seen them all, but I still reckon I’m right here]. Because of this, we can forgive the elements that are a bit hokey, such as when Hashimoto [named after the writer of Seven Samurai of course] crosses his two swords so that that glare dazzles his opponent, or the trampoline stuff, where characters can leap into the air, Hashimoto even bouncing on top of people’s heads during combat. This, though a traditional element of wu shu dating back to actual folklore when it was believed that great warriors could actually do things like that, and something which usually turns up in films like this, seems a bit out of place in Beach Of The War Gods which generally aims for realism though curiously diminishes the blood factor. Yes, there’s a bit, with lots of brutal kills by weapons and even somebody resorting to biting his opponent, but the brutality isn’t dwelt upon and the largest amount of blood is the load that Feng gets on his white clothes as he swings his way through the mayhem in nice long takes. While there’s the odd rough moment, perhaps most notably a zoom in on Hashimoto where’s he out of focus all the time, generally the filming is quite impressive. The action is viewed from a variety of angles, while Wang Yu and cinematographer Chiu Yao-Hu like placing objects in the foreground; a nice if not at all necessary touch.
The music score is credited to Huang Mao-Sang but seems like the work of two people, badly recorded orchestral material alternating with percussion and distorted electric guitar licks. The epic chorale music heard in the climax indicates that Wang Yu was aiming for something of real power. He doesn’t quite succeed, but may well have done if he’d allowed some more time for the characters. But he still created a pretty strong picture.
Limited Edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Tony Stella [2000 copies]
1080p HD presentation on Blu-ray of the original Hong Kong theatrical cut from a brand new 2K restoration
Picture quality is excellent with vivid textures, strong detail, natural colours and deep blacks.
Original Mandarin mono audio
Optional English dubbed audio
Optional English Subtitles newly translated for this rel.
Brand new feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival)
No doubt because there’s mot as much information around about this film compared to some of the others that he’s done talk tracks for, and that as he says, it’s often hard to trace names in credits, Djeng takes it a bit slower than usual, not seeming to rush to get as much information in as much as possible, but still delivers his usual fact-packed, observant and appreciative track. The film is one that he seems to like a lot though he sees much the same flaws in it as I do, as well as a few more, such as it being rather silly that Ping survives for more than a few seconds with knives against swords. He also tells us that Beach Of The War Gods flopped [even though Wang Yu claims it was a big hit, wonder who’s more reliable!?] a real shame seeing as Wang Yu spent three planning and shooting it.
Tony Rayns on Beach Of The War Gods [29 mins]
Rayns, in his very singular manner, discusses Wang Yu and this films, wbich he regards as his best. He could be right, but let me use this as a excuse to ask if Eureka have any plans to release The One-Armed Boxer 2: Master Of The Flying Guillo.tine Right, that’s done, so I can move on. Rayns says that it’s “more than rumour” that, actually, the “not entirely devoid of ego” Wang Yu had a lot of help with the films he directed and wrote as well as starred in, while delving into Wang Yu’s early career [his action movie debut was also Chang Cheh’s first movie] and even the hisotorical background. Rayns clearly likes the film while still admitting its flaws. And, oh dear lord, I just have to see Zatoichi And The One-Armed Swordsman.
Brand new interview with action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema on the life and career of Jimmy Wang Yu [27 mins]
What’s as good as or better than a Leeder / Venema commentary? Seeing Leeder and Venema in the flesh chatting about something, here sitting on chairs on the very beach used in the film, We feel their chemistry on talk tracks but can actually see it here. Opening in typically humorous fashion saying how one calls Jimmy Wang Yu and one Wong Yu, the duo aren’t generally as jokey as usual but remain light-hearted and just plain enjoyable to listen to as they look at Wang Yu’s life and career. We all know about his involvement with the Triads, but how about him claiming he swam from China [but where in China] to Hong Kong, or being on trail for murder and having one of his many fights in the court room? The segment dealing with what Wang Yu’s films tend to have in them is also great.
Archival interview with Jimmy Wang Yu [41 mins]
Rather than being from an earlier UK or US release of the film, this is from French TV. Fairly recent, and with trailers from Wang Yu’s films playing in the background, it’s an absolute must-watch. The questions might often be simplistic and samey, but the pretty fit-looking Wang Yu, after a somewhat uneasy start where he mostly just says the obvious and how good people were to work with, eventually really gets into it and reveals that he still has his large ego. He [probably rightfully] boasts about having made the first major kung fu film [with The Chinese Boxer] and denies involvement in the Triads [mind you , I was surprised the interviewer even asked him about it], before going on to claim that he doing his own stunts was what inspired Jackie Chan to do the same, and that Chan stole the idea of Shanghai Noon from him!
A Limited Edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver and a review of the film by Dr Craig D. Reid from his book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s [2000 copies]
A somewhat neglected highlight of early ’70s martial arts cinema with terrific special features. Highly Recommended!