Cult Movie: Water Margin was real deal for fans of small screen Asian swordplay

Like those high-kicking 70s martial arts movies, The Water Margin looked and felt epic
Ralph McLean

THE Water Margin was essential viewing when I was growing up. Back then anything martial arts related had a huge lure for me. Bruce Lee, long since departed when I was developing that early interest in Asian cinema, remained the king of Eastern action and his name was still spoken of in hushed and reverent tones in the school playgrounds of the late 1970s.

Badly dubbed but wildly exciting Asian epics, creaking at the seams with ancient traditions and those all-important and hugely overblown fighting sequences, were readily available on creaky old video tapes. But for those who wished to sate their appetite for high kicking, sword wielding action on television the options were severely limited.

There was Monkey of course but, fun as that utterly odd historical fable was, it didn't quite deliver the goods in a stern and epic way that suggested it was worthy of serious adulation. The Water Margin, though, was a different matter altogether.

First broadcast by the BBC in a pre-watershed slot in 1976, this was the real deal for those of us who craved a little credibility with our small screen swordplay. It looked and felt epic and to make it a little more palatable to Western ears it even boasted the familiar tones of the likes of the great Burt Kwouk (Peter Sellers's violent man-servant Cato in the Pink Panther films) and Miriam Margoyles on dubbing duties.

Watching it today remains a wholly satisfying experience even if the sense of seriousness and general adult tone that it exudes throughout the two series make the fact that it was shown in that pre-watershed slot seem almost shocking. For the 1970s this must have been strong fare and it still delivers quite a punch today.

Kwouk provides voice-over through the entire 26 episodes and it's his dulcet narration that talks us through history and back 1,000 years to a time of great cruelty and state corruption. At the story's core is one-time warrior-turned outlaw Lin Chung (Atsuo Nakamura) who must try to overthrow the evil emperor Kao Chiu. Along the way he must battle all kinds of clans and overcome all kinds of traps and elaborate plots set out to foil him.

Originally produced by Nippon Television in 1973 and 1974, it was based on the 14th century Shi Nai'an novel of the same name, which is often considered one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature.

There remains much to enjoy here, from the vast historical sweep of the story to the often beautiful location work (shot lushly on film across mainland China) and the deep-rooted proverbs and sayings that Kwouk espouses throughout. I can't comment on the Japanese TV original as I've never seen it but that dubbed BBC version ticked all the right boxes for me.

I loved it then and I love it still and if that's not the definition of quality TV then I don't know what is.

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