RIVER OF FURY: Tale of young love, crime and opera in period China
RIVER OF FURY (1973) is a straight drama from Shaw Bros. about a village boy, a girl in a Chinese opera troupe, and the boy's mentor, a riverboat captain with a sideline in smuggling, all set in the early 20th century, although it's not clear exactly when. I would argue the 1920s or earlier, although the cars and cameras we see late in the film come from much later (1940s). In any event, it's quite a touching story, marked by excellent performances by the three leads, Danny Lee, Lily Ho, and Ku Feng, location shooting in Taiwan, and authentic glimpses of the world of Chinese Opera.
Yezhuangzi (Danny Lee) is an orphaned farm boy who sells his land and goes to work for Duobo (Ku Feng) on his boat, which is used primarily to ferry a large traveling opera troupe from village to village. In the course of his work with the captain, the boy is shocked to learn that Duobo supplements his meager income by smuggling opium and weapons for criminal gangs along the river, but he is soon persuaded to help Duobo in these activities. Early in his tenure on the boat, the handsome boy attracts the attention of the opera troupe's beautiful lead performer, Ge Yiqing (Lily Ho), when he dives into the water to retrieve a garment she'd dropped and, later, when he rescues her from a local tough (Fan Mei-Sheng) and his gang who get fresh with her after a performance. Not long after, the captain meets with the girl's mother and boss to arrange a marriage for the two, to be officiated after the troupe's current contract runs out. Yezhuangzi then leaves on a business trip for the captain and when he returns, he finds that the troupe has become so popular that they've been booked into a large theater in the region's biggest town and Yiqing has become a major star and attracted the attention of the richest man in town (Tien Ching), who wines and dines both her and her mother (Ouyang Shafei). At this point, what had been a simple tale of young love and coming of age, with evocative views of village life in China of a century ago, now employs various narrative twists to upset the happy lives of these sweet, endearing young people and turn the film into a more standard movie melodrama. Yezhuangzi suffers betrayal from the two people closest to him and winds up in prison and Ge Yiqing learns that life among the rich isn't all it's cracked up to be. It all leads up to a violent and dramatic confrontation at the end.
What's especially striking about this movie is its frequent depictions of scenes from actual Chinese operas. There's even a Chinese Opera adviser listed in the opening credits alongside the fight choreographer. At one point the troupe performs a scene from "Butterfly Lovers" (a famous tale made into numerous films on its own), in which the forced separation of Ying-tai and Shan-bo parallels the breakup of Yiqing and Yezhuangzi. We see the troupe performing on makeshift stages in village streets and, later, at sumptuous theaters. We get a sense of what things were like for these performers as they travel in close quarters on a rickety old boat and have to work under less-than-ideal conditions until they attract the attention of a rich benefactor who arranges more prestigious bookings. The price, of course, is Yiqing's favors. Yiqing, being so young and beautiful, is constantly the target of local big shots asking her to dinner (with the assumption of more on the menu afterwards) and the troupe boss having to turn them down, sometimes sparking violent reactions as when one gang boss and his men break up a performance before being fought off by Yezhuangzi and Duobo. This was, apparently, an occupational hazard for beautiful performers, since I've seen this plot element in many other films about Chinese Opera.
The film is based on a novel and I wish I knew more about it because I'd love to read it if an English translation was available. It's not like many Shaw Bros. movies I've seen, with the emphasis on three characters and the changes they undergo in a period of about two or three years. The two lovers are initially so pure and innocent that it's painful to watch their potential happiness unravel so quickly. Lily Ho, all of 26 at the time, offers a perfect portrayal of a flighty, impetuous teenager just coming to grips with the power of her beauty and charm, impressed by Yezhuangzi's sincerity, strength, courage and good looks, but soon distracted by the gifts of a wealthy suitor. Her girlish interactions with the other performers in the troupe, who laugh and taunt her when her feelings toward the boy become obvious, are simply adorable. She looks absolutely gorgeous in full makeup and costume for the opera scenes and one is grateful for the chance to see her in an abundance of such scenes. Danny Lee was 20 at the time.
There are two fight scenes in the movie and they are not martial arts bouts, but brawls, pure and simple, with slugging, smacking, pushing, shoving, tugging and kicking. They're messylike real fights. The direction is by Chang Tseng-chai, who did one early kung fu film for Cathay Pictures that has some renown, FROM THE HIGHWAY (1970), which I've also reviewed on this site and is the only other film of his I've seen. If I have any complaint about the direction, it's the overuse of the zoom lens. There are too many scenes where I wished the camera had moved instead of the lens. Also, there's a visit to a brothel that includes nudity and a gratuitous sex scene that represents quite a jarring shift in the film's tone. For the record, the English title, "River of Fury," is a bit overwrought. The few scenes involving any kind of fury take place inland.
0 of 0 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?