Director: Jimmy Wang Yu
Screenplay: Jimmy Wang Yu
Starring: Jimmy Wang Yu, Lung Fei, Tien Yeh, Hsieh Han, Chang Yi-Kuai, Shan Mao, Tsai Hung, Min Min
Country: Hong Kong, Taiwan
Running Time: 101 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Wang Yu (or Jimmy Wang Yu, as he became known in the West, following the release of The Man From Hong Kong in 1975) is widely considered to have kick-started the modern kung-fu film boom in 1970, following the huge success of The Chinese Boxer, which he wrote, directed and starred in. The film is even believed to have inspired Bruce Lee to come back to Hong Kong to make The Big Boss.
Whilst hand-to-had combat became the name of the game, dominating Hong Kong screens for several years following The Chinese Boxer, in 1972 Wang Yu decided to take a step back to make a film in the genre that had previously dominated, the wuxia (or wuxia pian).
Released in 1973 to a disappointing box office, Beach of the War Gods was entirely made in Taiwan, with a largely Taiwanese cast and crew, despite being a Golden Harvest production. Wang Yu made most of his films in the country from the 70s onwards, due to an injunction by Run Run Shaw after the actor walked out on his Shaw Brothers contract to move over to Golden Harvest.
Despite its initial commercial failure, Beach of the War Gods has its supporters and Eureka have deemed it worthy of their first-class Eureka Classics treatment on Blu-ray. I got my hands on a copy and my thoughts follow.
The film is very loosely based on actual historical events. It’s set in 1556, a time when Japanese pirates, who were nicknamed ‘wokou’ (which translates to the derogatory ‘dwarf pirates’), were ravaging Chinese shores, attacking the locals and holding towns and villages to ransom. The film takes place in one such village, where the wokou (led by Shinobu Hashimoto, played by Lung Fei) are demanding a huge sum of money from the inhabitants or they will burn their homes to the ground.
The poor villagers can’t possibly meet those demands but, thankfully, a wandering swordsman, Hsia Feng (Wang Yu), is passing through and volunteers to help them. He couldn’t take on an army of wokou all by himself though, so uses the days leading up to the Japanese deadline to assemble a team of skilled Chinese fighters to join their cause.
So, whilst Wang Yu was going against the grain in making a wuxia, he wasn’t entirely setting himself apart from the crowd in making a patriotic film with the Japanese as the villains, a trope key to both his own The Chinese Boxer and Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, among others.
Whilst Beach of the War Gods is fiercely anti-Japanese on the surface though, the great irony is that Wang Yu owes a great debt to Japanese cinema for the film’s style and story.
Whilst you can see splashes of King Hu and Wang Yu’s mentor Chang Cheh in the DNA of Beach of the War Gods, as well as a flavour of the spaghetti western, it’s Japanese samurai movies that seem to have been most on Wang Yu’s mind when making his film. Most notably, Wang Yu has cribbed Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai for his narrative. With half the length to play with, we only get five ‘samurai’ here and much less fleshed-out characters, but you can’t fail to see the comparison.
There’s more than a flavour of samurai cinema in the film’s visuals too. Wang Yu and his cinematographer Chiu Yao-Hu make great use of the wide frame with some nicely composed shots enriched with depth and movement. The elements are put to good use too, with wind machines regularly blasting away, waves crashing dramatically and fire adding colour and drama. Granted, the film is rougher around the edges than its Japanese counterparts but, for a much lower-budgeted Taiwanese production, it’s a step above much of the Hong Kong output of the time in terms of scope, ambition and production value.
Going by his commentary here, Frank Djeng believes all the referencing of Japanese films and the lack of substance beyond the action makes Beach of the War Gods a little monotonous. I can see that and did find that my interest in the epic final act (basically a 25-minute battle sequence) started to wane after a while, though the reappearance of the chief villain, Shinobu Hashimoto, in the climax of the battle reinvigorated it.
Yes, the characters and plot are very flimsy but I actually appreciated this stripped-back approach. Instead, the film rushes towards its lengthy, epic final battle without any flab getting in the way. And, whilst it all threatened to get a bit much, the action is incredibly well handled. Hundreds of extras fill the scenes with the clash of swords and spears, whilst the key protagonists fight with greater skill in the foreground. Other than a bizarre ‘formation-off’ in the middle of the battle, the action is choreographed with great energy and ingenuity too and a fun range of weapons keeps things from getting stale.
Admittedly, Beach of the War Gods is a far cry from Seven Samurai, but as a piece of action-packed wuxia, it’s pretty impressive and a heck of a lot of fun. Switch off, strap in and enjoy the ride.
Beach of the War Gods is out on 23rd October on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. The film looks great, with gorgeous colours and crisp details. You get a choice of Mandarin or English audio. I opted for the former and, whilst it shows the limitations of Hong Kong soundtracks of the era, it’s otherwise solid.
LIMITED EDITION SPECIAL FEATURES
– 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
– Original Mandarin mono audio
– Optional English dubbed audio
– Optional English Subtitles, newly translated for this release
– Brand new feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival)
– Brand new interview with action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema on the life and career of Jimmy Wang Yu
– Interview with Tony Rayns on Jimmy Wang Yu and Beach of the War Gods
– Archival interview with Jimmy Wang Yu
– 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]
Due to information for a lot of the Taiwanese cast and crew being harder to find than it is for their Hong Kong counterparts, Djeng spends more time in his commentary analysing the film than discussing the histories of people on screen and behind the camera. Whilst praising the visuals, Djeng is honest about some of the film’s shortcomings. He also talks about the ways the film references others. I must admit, I felt he was being a bit harsh on it, but his points are valid.
Instead of their customary commentary track, Arne Venema and Mike Leeder provide a 28-minute piece on the wild and crazy life of Jimmy Wang Yu. Shot on a beach, the discussion is fairly loose and very enjoyable.
Tony Rayns also talks about Jimmy Wang Yu’s background in his interview, before discussing Beach of the War Gods in more detail. As ever, it’s a well-informed piece that’s delivered clearly.
There’s also a 41-minute archival interview with Wang Yu. In this fairly lengthy piece, the actor and filmmaker runs through his whole career. There are some technical deficiencies, as mentioned in an opening caption, but these aren’t distracting enough to spoil this engrossing interview. Using a constant split screen, the film also manages to fit in a lot of old film clips and stills to keep things interesting.
The booklet, as usual for Eureka’s Hong Kong releases, contains an illuminating essay from James Oliver, who talks about the cross-cultural aspects of the film. This time, however, his piece is joined by a tribute to Wang Yu by Tony Rayns and an archival review of the film by Dr. Craig D. Reid. As such, it’s one of the strongest of Eureka’s Hong Kong action movie booklets.
So, it’s an excellent package that I thoroughly enjoyed working through. It makes for an easy recommendation.