The Yellow River Fighter

Reviewed by Yves Gendron

The YELLOW RIVER FIGHTER is a 1988 Mainland China martial art yarn made by the director of Jet Li’s semi-classic film debut; THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE. Starring in the lead however is not a young Jet Li like Wu-shu ace but the veteran Wu-shu performer who played the fiendish villain in the original Shaolin movie - tall lanky and limber Yu Cheng-wei who plays a heroic swordsman in the film.

Around one thousand years ago China was divided with ruthless warlords were competing between themselves, which brought considerable suffering to the people. Because of the warring Master Swordsman Ma has tragically lost his beloved young daughter and has become a despondent drunkard with his misfortune being compounded by a sudden eye disease that has robbed him of much of his sight. Fate has him cross the path of the Yellow River warlord King Tuan however, whose life he save once and he finds new purpose by helping the King bring peace to the land and the people of China. But Ma will have to go through many other hardships and setbacks in seeking to achieve his idealistic goal.

Made by Zhang Yin Yan of SHAOLIN TEMPLE movie fame, THE YELLOW-RIVER FIGHTER has many of the same qualities and drawbacks as the earlier film. It has undeniable production values with technical polish and delivers appealing if superficial characters. It also contains many lively action scenes and is shot among the gorgeous natural scenery in and around the picturesque Yellow River. On the down side however, as is often the case with Mainland productions, the film’s action scenes lack the edge and stylishness usually found in a H-K production and has something of a shallow feel to it.

The YELLOW-RIVER FIGHTER’s leading star Yu Cheng-hui had distinguished himself in the movies playing fiendish villains in both SHAOLIN TEMPLE I and III (also known as MARTIAL ART OF SHAOLIN) with such vivid portrayals that it might be difficult for fans to imagine him in a heroic lead role. But Yu actually proves himself superbly good here; he has a powerful screen presence, brings a dignified, stoic, grimness to his part and through his facial expressions powerfully demonstrates a variety of emotions such as despair, joy, and anger. Unfortunately, a good deal of the appeal brought by Yu is a bit undermined by the presence of a bratty comic sidekick who follows him around through much of the film. He is intended as comedic foil but comes across (at least in the dubbed English version of the film) as a rather distracting annoyance although he does have a couple of good moments.

THE YELLOW RIVER FIGHTER is actually director Zhang Yin Yan’s favourite film for personal reasons. “This is because my generation of intellectuals harboured the aspiration of doing something for the people. Like my hero in the picture – he suffers a lot of setbacks and has his life endangered - but he’s never depressed and always works towards the notion of fighting for the people”. Zhang refers to the so-called “lost generation”, young Chinese who lived through the first couple of decades of Communist ruled China. They wanted to help rebuild their country which had suffered decades worth of foreign invasion and civil war but were faced with China ruler’s Mao Tse Dong’s ill conceived socio-economic projects such as the “Great Leap Forward” which resulted in around forty million deaths from famine or his infamous Cultural revolution which saw as a result much of their hope and efforts dashed away. The Cultural revolution and the disastrous effect of Mao’s absolute rule are also a subtext found in some of the films of Zhang’s contemporary filmmaker King Hu as well as more famously in the films of Hong Kong maverick director Tsui Hark. While not as outlandishly visionary as Tsui , Zhang’s use of the “Red China” subtext could be deemed as more direct and not quite as dark.
YELLOW RIVER does not only reflect a political subtext however; it also showed the influence of many other movies. The more obvious would be the famed sixties Japanese serial ZATOCHI who featured a righteous blind swordsman who defends the oppressed and downtrodden. Judging from the many horse riding scenes mounted by riders outfitted in ancient Chinese armour, we could also see a possible influence from Akira Kurosawa’s late period epic: KAGUMUSHA (80) and RAN (85). The cape and hat worn by the hero and much of the film’s scenery is also slightly reminiscent of the outfits seen in some spaghetti Westerns. All this borrowing, either real or alleged, makes the film sort of a throwback to the sixties and seventies martial yarns but a pretty effective one.
YELLOW RIVER FIGHTER features a couple of other SHAOLIN movie veterans albeit usually in bit parts - thus Sun Jian-kua  (who was the drunken pole fighting monk in SHAOLIN TEMPLE and the cross eyed villain in KIDS FROM SHAOLIN) appears as a henchman here. Woo Gim-keung also shows up, as does Yui Hai who appears for about two minutes in his customary monk role. He does not fight here, but was along with Yu Cheng Hui the film’s action choreographer. This was to be Yu Cheng- Hui and Woo Gim-keung’s last recorded appearance, which is a shame because the film truly shows that the former had the right stuff for elder leading man heroics.
Interestingly enough YELLOW RIVER FIGHTER features a surprising amount of graphic violence with highlights of a couple of decapitation scenes, a little girl being speared in the back and heads and corpses being left hanging on city walls. Still thankfully these moments are brief and not overtly gory.

The setting of much of the film is the area near the Yellow River, one of China’s two major rivers (the other one being the Yangtze which means the “Blue River” in Chinese).  It’s the region between these two rivers in which much of Chinese civilisation developed. The Yellow River has such a name because of the yellowish deposits it carries which are left on the riverbanks making them very fertile for cultivation. Like the Yangtze however, the Yellow River is a capricious powerful river dangerous to navigate in some areas.

Overall, YELLOW RIVER is not a masterpiece, but remains a very decent throwback yarn. It does not really compare to the best martial films of the Shaws, Sammo or Jackie for example, but with it’s Yellow River related scenery and its older yet vigorous hero it has the great virtue of being different from the norm. Therefore, the movie is mostly recommended for those who would like some small undemanding variety in their martial art movie diet.

YELLOW RIVER is currently available in two different DVD formats, neither of which is fully satisfactory. There is a full screen dubbed one from Crash Cinema. The other one by CAV/WRLD VIDEO is letterboxed and subtitled but has the annoying glitch of pausing by itself at each chapter.

My rating for the film: 7.0