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All-star cast in swordplay epic based on Chinese classic
Co-directed by Chang Cheh, SEVEN BLOWS OF THE DRAGON (1972, aka THE WATER MARGIN) is an action-packed Shaw Bros. costume adventure based on incidents from the multi-volume Chinese literary classic, 'Water Margin,' aka 'All Men are Brothers.' The U.S. release version (which showed in American theaters in 1973) was, at 79 minutes, severely cut, leaving glaring gaps in the story and action. (With the news of the impending digital remastering of the Shaw Bros. library, we can now hope for a future uncut release of this title.) Still, it's worth seeing as an example of unabashed nonstop fighting and colorful historical adventure involving a host of characters from the Sung Dynasty, including the infamous band of 108 Outlaws, 'gallant men' who allied together to become bandits after political corruption and court intrigue made them wanted men.
The focus of the film is on Master Lu, the famed Jade Dragon, who is imprisoned on trumped-up charges arranged by a devious steward having an affair with his wife. Members of the 108, including the boisterous, rotund Black Whirlwind, set out to rescue Master Lu and avenge the wrong done to him. Directing the official pursuit of Master Lu is his former friend and classmate, Golden Spear, who leads his forces into a climactic battle with the 108 and a one-on-one duel with Lu.
There is lots of action and intrigue in a film that moves at a dizzying pace, with great fight scenes involving all sorts of exotic weapons (including Black Whirlwind's pair of battle axes); an all-star cast; and a surprising nude scene featuring Master Lu's adulterous wife. The lead players include Chang Cheh regulars Ti Lung, David Chiang and Chen Kuan Tai, along with Lily Ho (as Tigress), Ku Feng (as Welcome Rain), Fan Mei-Sheng (as Black Whirlwind), Wu Ma, and, in an unusual bit of casting, Japanese star Tetsuro Tanba as Master Lu. (Western viewers may recall Tanba's portrayal of Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese Secret Service, in the 1967 James Bond film, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, and his role as a government official in MESSAGE FROM SPACE.) Golden Spear is played by another Japanese actor, the lesser-known Toshio Kurozawa.
SEVEN BLOWS OF THE DRAGON was followed by a sequel, SEVEN SOLDIERS OF KUNG FU, also reviewed on this site, with most of the stars returning, which detailed the further adventures of the 108 after they were pardoned by the Emperor and assigned to make war on rebel armies.
ADDENDUM (October 6, 2007): Since I wrote the above review, the original full-length Shaw Bros. release version of the film, in Mandarin with English subtitles, has come out under the title THE WATER MARGIN, in a restored/remastered letter-boxed edition on both Region 3 DVD (from Celestial Pictures) and Region 1 DVD in the U.S. (from Image Entertainment). The R3 is 120 min., while the R1 is 125 min., a difference probably attributable to PAL-to-NTSC conversion for the R3. In any case, fans basically get approximately 40 more minutes of the story, with scenes that flesh out some of the characters and their relationships. An opening text crawl informs us that the film is based on chapters 64-68 of the original literary work.
One of the special features on the R1 DVD is a one-minute-and-36-second "extended love scene" that was specially shot by Shaw Bros. for the dubbed U.S. release version and includes shots of a nude body double (for actress Ling Ling, who plays the adulterous wife of Master Lu) sharing the screen with actor Tien Ching (as Lu's treacherous aide) in the film's one sex scene.
One important distinction between the original Hong Kong version and the English dub known as SEVEN BLOWS OF THE DRAGON is found in the music score, which was largely redone for the English dub, mainly to replace music cues on the original track that were lifted from Dominic Frontiere's score for the 1968 Clint Eastwood western, HANG 'EM HIGH, which was still fresh to many American moviegoers (and to lawyers for United Artists) when SEVEN BLOWS OF THE DRAGON was released in 1973. The original Shaw Bros. music score was patched together from a variety of different sources and sounds awfully arbitrary, with the HANG 'EM HIGH cues being particularly distracting, the only glaring flaw in an otherwise masterful Hong Kong costume epic.
The film's sequel, reviewed on this site as SEVEN SOLDIERS OF KUNG FU, has also been released on Region 3 DVD by Celestial, under the title ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS. Also available is THE DELIGHTFUL FOREST (1972), newly restored as well, something of a prequel to THE WATER MARGIN, in that it shows what led Ti Lung's character, Wu Sung, to join the 108 outlaws just before the events of this film.
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