During the late Ming Dynasty, stoic sword hero Hsiao Feng (Jimmy Wang Yu) arrives in a small village along the southern Chinese coast besieged by Japanese pirates and wastes no time in pitting his unstoppable kung fu skills against the evil invaders. Hoping to forge an army of resistance fighters, Hsiao travels the countryside in search of like-minded patriots and eventually recruits brawny sword seller Chao the Iron Bull (Sit Hon), avaricious knife-thrower Leng Ping (Tin Yau), and Spearman Li whose name pretty much says it all. These righteous heroes whip the local peasantry into a crack resistance unit, outnumbered but bravely facing off against a superior samurai army in a spectacular coastal battle along the so-called “beach of the war gods.” Nevertheless, it all comes down to a mano-a-mano between the intrepid Hsiao Feng and the lethally leaping pirate chief Shinobu Hashimoto (Lung Fei).
In a recent interview on Japanese television, actor-director-martial arts icon Jimmy Wang Yu professed his love for samurai cinema, particularly the films of Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Gosha and Kihachi Okamoto. Nevertheless a strong anti-Japanese sentiment runs through his work, born perhaps from bad experiences on the set of Zatoichi vs. the One-Armed Swordsman (1971) - a movie ironically intended to impart a message of tolerance between the Asian neighbours. With Beach of the War Gods, Wang Yu simultaneously drew inspiration from the cinema of the land of the rising sun and savaged the culture that spawned it. The film is a thinly veiled remake of Seven Samurai, to the extent of its chief villain being named after Kurosawa’s scriptwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, who later sullied his own reputation by writing and directing what is commonly regarded as the worst Japanese film ever made: Lake of Illusions (1982). Here the Japanese are the villains and Wang Yu implies the ruthless pirates are no different from the occupying forces in World War Two or the belligerent imperialists that mocked the Chinese as “the sick men of Asia” in Fist of Fury (1972), a movie produced by the same studio, Golden Harvest.
Although Wang Yu’s take-no-prisoners stance may raise a few eyebrows today, it is worth bearing in mind at the time this film was set China was a divided nation. The script, written by the star himself, argues the warring Chinese states should set aside their differences and unite against a common enemy. A few stirring speeches from Hsiao Feng are all it takes to persuade everyone that, deep down they’re all brothers. Even the mercenary Leng Ping admits: “I was born Chinese and I shall die Chinese.” At heart the film is not really racist so much as fiercely patriotic, not too different from an American revolutionary epic or a World War Two flag-waver.
In fact, Beach of the War Gods ranks among the finest martial arts epics of its era. Wang Yu’s direction is often very impressive. His sweeping widescreen compositions along the windswept shores are worthy of the Japanese masters he so admired. The plot is purposefully one-note and simplistic, yet the build-up is surprisingly suspenseful (notably the night-time arrival of the Japanese army in the form of a thousand flickering torches) and the action is superbly staged with Wang Yu making artful use of slow-motion. Especially throughout the last half hour which is essentially one long battle. Wang Yu marshals hundreds of acrobatic extras into an extravagant pageant of bloodshed and chivalry, delving into the intricacies of strategy and guerrilla warfare (Hsiao lays the beach with booby-traps and explosives devices to even the odds) and culminating in a striking skirmish atop a rotating windmill. Although supposedly based on a true story, this is comic book superheroics rather than a history lesson. Nevertheless it’s stirring stuff and among the star’s finest achievements.
Chinese actor/director born Yu Wang, who has worked almost entirely in the martial arts genre. A former swimming champion, Yu became one of the biggest stars of 70s kung fu for his work in films such as the The Magnificent Trio, One Armed Swordsmen and Dragon Squad. Often directed himself in his films and produced the Jackie Chan-starrer Island on Fire.