Aug 7, 2010

Martial Arts Month: Drunken Master(s)

DIR: Yuen Woo Ping / Jackie Chan and Lau Kar Leung

In 1978 Jackie Chan had already been working in martial arts movies for about a decade, mainly for low budget director Lo Wei, but he’d just scored his first hit, with a film made in an agreement that saw him loaned to Seasonal Film and director Yuen Woo Ping (now famous as the martial arts choreographer of The Matrix and Crouching Tinger, Hidden Dragon). Following their hit with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow Yuen, Chan and co-star Yuen Siu Tien (Woo Ping’s father) set out to top it with Drunken Master, another in a long line of tellings of the tale of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung.

Rather than showing Wong Fei Hung as the martial arts master he became, Drunken Master fits itself brilliantly to Jackie Chan’s very particular talents, effectively inventing the comedy kung fu genre in front of your eyes. Chan’s Wong Fei Hung is a mischievous young man with a very disapproving father (his name was Wong Kei Ying, and we’ll be looking at a Yuen Woo Ping film about him before martial arts month is out). When he, in a single day, manages to offend his aunt and a rival martial arts teacher, Fei Hung is banished by his father, who sends him to study kung fu with Beggar Su (Yuen Siu Tien), whose brutal training style and eight drunken gods kung fu prepare Fei Hung for a climactic battle with hired killer Thunderfoot (played by Korean superkicker Hwang Jang-lee).

Drunken Master is in many ways the prototypical martial arts film, from the introductory bout over the opening credits, to the hero who knows some kung fu, but must learn a new style to triumph, to the comic beggar character to the training set pieces almost every scene here has been repeated ad nauseum by every martial arts filmmaker for the last 32 years. It is, then, amazing that the film feels so fresh. Chan’s strength was always his effortless onscreen charm, and here it’s in full evidence, as is his breathtaking martial arts skill and his teriffic comic timing (he’s the past master at making you laugh in the middle of a fight.

It’s broad, of course, and the story and acting aren’t really what you’d call good, but Drunken Master is an enduring classic; it’s a lot of fun and the balance of slapstick comedy and awesome martial arts is endlessly engaging.

The very belated 1994 sequel, Legend of Drunken Master, finds a 40-year-old Chan still trying to play a young Wong Fei Hung. It’s not especially convincing, particularly when he’s opposite the 31-year-old Anita Mui as his mother. It’s also a rather heavier film in some respects, with a multi-stranded plot that takes in Wong Kei Ying’s fortunes as a chemist, factory workers being mistreated by their employers and the smuggling of precious Chinese artefacts. Sadly the plots aren’t terribly engaging, and you end up not really caring who the villains are, or what they’re doing.

The good news is that the martial arts sequences are even sharper than in the original. Chan’s near his physical prime here, and his speed is just mindblowing, especially in the drunken boxing scenes. Action highlights include a frequently crouched bout with co-director Lau Kar Leung, the finale in which Chan again fights an astonishing kicker (this time Ken Lo, then his real life bodyguard, in a scene that took two months to film), an sequence where Wong Fei Hung fends off swarms of enemies with a single piece of bamboo and a wonderfully funny fight in which Wong’s mother continually throws him wine bottles, so he can become drunk enough to win.

The comedy is equally sharp, with Chan on strong form, but upstaged by a very silly and really hilarious performance from Anita Mui. Many of Chan’s fans rate this as the best of his late period work, and it is up there, but as a sequel to Drunken Master it’s a disappointment overall.

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