The Water Margin

The ancient sages said "do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon?"
So may one just man become an army.
Nearly a thousand years ago in ancient China, at the time of the Sung dynasty, there was a cruel and corrupt government.
These men riding are outlaws -- heroes -- who have been driven to live in the Water Margins of Liang Shan Po, far to the south of the capital city. Each fights tyranny with a price on his head, in a world very different from our own.
The story starts in legend even then, for our heroes, it was said, were perhaps the souls reborn of other, earlier knights.

fantasy elements

oriental wizards, superior sword fighting ability


In this TV adaptation of a famous Chinese folk legend -- a kind of 'Robin Hood in China' -- hero-outlaws fight a corrupt government "in a world very different from our own", with minor fantasy elements (set in China, made in Japan, dubbed into English) -- it's now out on video, so I get to watch it again.

Gradually, over the 26 episodes, wicked Kao Chui forces each of the 'nine dozen heroes', one way or another, into outlawry, thereby sealing his own fate. For they go to join the rebel band living in the water margins of Liang Shan Po, forming a steadily growing force of opposition to Kao. After numerous adventures, sword fights, complex plots, counter-plots, sub-plots, and gobs of opaque oriental philosophy, the heroes eventually overthrow him.

Every episode features at least one set-piece sword fight, as our heroes carve their way through ever-increasing numbers of soldiers, bandits, or whoever else is in their way. But it's not just the fighting, fun though it is: the characters develop -- Lin Chung grows from a conscientious army officer into a great hero -- Kao Chiu descends from a small time bully to a terrible tyrant. The complex story of how various law-abiding, upright citizens are forced onto the wrong side of the law -- but manage to keep to the moral high ground -- how they are forced into rebellion against the corrupt government, holds the attention.

The dubbing is exquisite, virtually lip-synched throughout, so you can easily forget it is dubbed. This does force the dialogue to be a bit bizarre and disjointed in places, but that's just part of the charm. Also, the dubbing uses (mostly fake) Chinese accents, greatly helping the realism -- English or American accents would just have been jarring.

Rating: 2.5

[ unmissable | worth watching | passes the time | mind candy | unwatchable | unfinishable ]

Main characters

  • Lin Chung
    suffers much, but maintains his honour and nobility throughout. He consistently refuses to be the leader of Liang Shan Po, feeling himself unworthy -- but he is the driving moral force of the tale.
  • Kao Chiu
    starts as a small-time bully, and grows in power and wickedness, over-taxing and murdering the peasants, until he is Prime Minister with designs on the Imperial Throne.

  • Hu San-niang
    the only female hero. As a sop to femininity, she fights with two short lightweight swords, but is just as lethal as the other heroes. Every other female character, good or bad, is destined barely to survive one episode.
  • Sung Chiang -- the Good Judge
  • Lu Ta -- the 'Flower Priest' -- comic relief
  • Shih Chin -- the Tattooed Dragon

Episode guide

  1. Nine dozen heroes and one wicked man
  2. None will ever escape alive
  3. Both at last will reach the sea
  4. Ever busy are the gods of love
  5. A treasure of Gold and Jade
  6. Bandits who steal are executed
  7. How easy to die, how hard to live
  8. A man's only happiness
  9. A dutiful son and the love of a brother
  10. Escape is not freedom
  11. The girl who loved the Flower Priest
  12. Kao Chiu loses his heart
  13. When Liang Shan Po robbed the poor
  14. A death for love, more deaths from greed
  15. The bravest tiger is first killed
  16. Heaven aims the master's arrow
  17. The traps of love and hate
  18. A foolish sage who got involved
  19. Mourn the slaughter of so many
  20. A war to end all wars
  21. Death of a great man
  22. Lin Chung is beaten
  23. A concubine's dowry
  24. Liang Shan Po and the millionaire
  25. Knight of the long sword
  26. The dynasty of Kao

reviewed 24 September 1997