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THE DELIGHTFUL FOREST is a real Shaw Bros. gem, a hard-to-find 1972
production from the fabled Hong Kong studio co-directed by Chang Cheh
and starring Ti Lung. It is one of a handful of films adapted from "The
Water Margin" (aka "Outlaws of the Marsh"), the classic 14th century
Chinese martial epic of heroes of the "gallant fraternity," united by
their outlaw status, who defend wronged fighters and combat a steady
stream of corrupt officials during the Song Dynasty. The protagonist
here is Wu Song, the famed constable, known for his superior strength,
who killed a rampaging man-killing tiger on Jingyang Ridge and then
went on to avenge the murder of his brother by killing his adulterous
sister-in-law and her illicit lover. This film picks up the tail end of
that story and moves on to adventures arising after being imprisoned
for his acts. The events shown in this film are found in Chapters 27-31
of the book (as published in Sidney Shapiro's 1981 translation, Indiana
University Press edition).
The film opens with Wu Song (Ti Lung) fighting the lover, Ximen Qing (Lau Kar Wing), in a furious kung fu bout and killing him. During his subsequent stay in prison, he is well treated by town boss Shi En (Tien Ching) who hopes that a hero of Wu Song's proportions will agree to help defeat Chiang Chung (Jiang the Gate Guard Giant as named in the book) and get back control of the taverns, gambling houses and brothels in the village of Delightful Forest (Happy Grove in the book). Wu Song agrees, provided he is allowed to have three bowls of wine at every tavern along the way. After defeating the giant (played by Zhu Mu), he is later framed by the villain's allies on a charge of theft. The film closes with Wu avenging himself on those who engineered the frame-up and his flight out of the territory in a monk's guise. Until the final scenes, which perhaps telescope some of the events in the book, it is all a remarkably close adaptation. (The final fight is actually a lot less bloody than the one in the book where Wu Song slaughters General Zhang's entire household: wife, children, servants and maids!)
The many fight scenes offer lots of large-scale martial arts action staged by, among others, Lau Kar Leung and his brother Lau Kar Wing. It's all beautifully shot on elaborate Shaw Bros. studio interiors and backlot sets. Ti Lung may seem a bit slight to match the description of the super-strong character as given in the book, but his spirited performance brings the character to glorious life on the screen. Ti was in dozens of kung fu films in the 1970s, many of them classics of the genre, and he gives one of his most energetic and expressive performances here.
The big problem with this film, of course, is its rarity. The tape reviewed was a poor-quality dub missing huge portions of the film, particularly at the end. Its total running time was 75 minutes, unlikely for an early 1970s Shaw Bros. costume epic. When the Shaw Bros. films finally get re-released on video and DVD, this is a prime candidate for restoration.
ADDENDUM (October 6, 2007): Five-and-a-half years after writing the above review, a restored/remastered letter-boxed version of THE DELIGHTFUL FOREST has come out on Region 3 DVD from Celestial Pictures. It's 92 min. in length, 17 min. longer than the English dub seen for the review. A quick comparison of the action finale as presented in the two versions reveals much of the battle action cut from the English dub.
Since doing the original review, I've had the opportunity to see or re-view other Shaw Bros. films based on "The Water Margin" and featuring the main character here, Wu Sung (as the name is spelled in the new subtitles). This film comes after the events depicted in an earlier film, THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN (1963), but before events depicted in THE WATER MARGIN, made the same year, 1972 (released in English as SEVEN BLOWS OF THE DRAGON). Ti Lung plays Wu Sung in THE DELIGHTFUL FOREST, THE WATER MARGIN and the latter film's direct sequel, ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (aka SEVEN SOLDIERS OF KUNG FU). He reprised the role ten years later in TIGER KILLER (1982, aka WU SONG), which is actually a prequel to DELIGHTFUL FOREST and depicts the events that caused him to be a prisoner of the state here. THE WATER MARGIN, ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS and TIGER KILLER are all also reviewed on this site.
The music track on the original Mandarin-language version of DELIGHTFUL FOREST is very different from that of the English dub. It consists almost entirely of cues lifted from Ennio Morricone's scores for the Sergio Leone films, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and DUCK, YOU SUCKER. As a fan of both of those films and owner of their soundtrack albums, I was more than a little distracted by it. Some cues did sound like they were re-orchestrated, though. I did a spot check of the music track on the English dub and found a series of rather choppy cues from a very odd music library with lots of incongruous electric guitar riffs. So I guess I'll settle for the Morricone.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Wu Sung (Ti Lung), famous for having killed a tiger with his bare hands (and his adulterous sister and her lover!), avenges himself in a spectacular opening scene before allowing himself to be taken off to jail (his head and hands in a stock-like contraption, a cangue). En route to jail, he's given the opportunity to escape not once but twice, but insists on being taken in so he can pay for his crimes. This is known as Righteousness Plus. At An Ping Fortress (the prison), he's asked by the warden's son to help liberate a gambling den in The Delightful Forest (a village) from strongman Jiang. Wu agrees on the condition that he can have three bowls of wine at each inn and tavern along the way. Though drunk by the time he arrives, Wu handily beats Jiang and Shi En's property is returned to its rightful owner. Wu is then wooed by Jiang's boss and father, Zheng, who proceeds to get him drunk again and frames him for theft. Wu is ambushed and beaten and once again hauled off to prison. Needless to say, there's hell to pay when he sobers up. Ti Lung is at his best here as the righteous Wu Sung, and whether he's using his fists, his feet or a sword, the action is beautifully done throughout and the blood-drenched finale is one of Chang Cheh's best. Lung's final costume suggests that this is a prequel to THE WATER MARGIN. Don't miss it.
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