Tuesday, June 12, 2012

COME DRINK WITH ME (1966, King Hu, Shaw Brothers)

And it's Martial Chivalry's first special event: SHAW BROTHERS WEEK

If you seek out the films I profile on this blog, that intro is about to become very special for you. Shaw Brothers was the dominant force in Hong Kong film making for years in Hong Kong. They had the largest studio, the most stars, the best directors, and the biggest back lot in Hong Kong, and until Bruce Lee signed with rival Golden Harvest they were the unquestioned king of kung fu films. We're going to spend a week, looking at a few of the finest films in their vaults. Let's start it off with...

COME DRINK WITH ME is an unquestioned classic of wuxia cinema, and a key transitional film between the Chinese martial arts films of the silent and early sound periods, which featured fights that were more magic than muscle and more dance than combat and the films which made up the kung fu craze of the 70's. It's also perhaps the last great female-centric wuxia film before everything changed a year later with the release of THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (more on that tomorrow). It is a milestone of 60's Hong Kong film making and a film that still holds up to this day.

Make no mistake this is not a perfect film: it can a bit talky, there are some strange editing decisions in the fights that conspire to obscure the action, and the script seems to be two good kung fu movies fused together at a sharp angle from one another. The fights themselves tend to be shorter affairs that will leave those of who are here for virtuoso displays of physical skill a bit cold. The principal physical villain does not appear until the final act.

However, we can make allowances for pioneers, and King Hu was certainly that, and then some. He brought a refined Peking Opera sensibility to the wuxia film that would continue till the present, every one of the great set pieces in this film has a spontaneous glee, as though even the filmmakers couldn't help grinning as they put it on the screens. There's none of the dreaded camp here, just style for miles and a sense of F-U-N that resonates to this day.

The plot, as I alluded to above, is interesting enough to warrant a summary: A group bandits have kidnapped the provincial Governor's son, and holed up in Buddhist monastery demanding an exchange for their incarcerated leader. The Governor dispatches Golden Swallow (played to a simmer by Chang Pei-pei) to recover his son and bring the bad guys to justice. Meanwhile in the small town where the bandits are to meet up with Golden Swallow, there's a drunken beggar hanging about who may or may not be a grandmaster of kung fu armed with a legendary wand that belongs to the order of monks that the bandits are currently harassing.

Like always, the devil's in the details here-- Beginning with Golden Swallow, the film's most famous character. Golden Swallow is a woman, who is almost always disguised as a man (I suppose technical term would be an androgyne, I am reasonably sure that term genderqueer does not apply to those of the Ming dynasty). Swallow's disguise works on the characters in the film, she's always referred to as a he, and she attempts to sneak into the temple in the second act by disguising herself as a woman, which is pretty neat. She's stoic and cool for most of the film, except when dealing with Drunken Cat (the beggar described above, played by Yuen Hah). He gets under her skin at first, but as the film progresses he's the only character who cuts through her resolve. In a different film they'd have a great love story working here, but this film is completely indifferent to sexuality in the way that traditional wuxia heroes are. There's not a single romantic attachment displayed by any of the characters in this film. These are people who chose the world of jiang hu and left their attachments behind. This concept, taken for granted in this film, will be the key facet of the wuxia  genre to be deconstructed in the coming years. Jiang hu, presented as a kind of Never-Never land in the films before this one, will slowly become a more violent and lonesome place.

Not that this film is completely sanitary in that department. The red stuff is peppered throughout the film, and the film doesn't shy away from death. The most shocking moment of the entire movie comes about a third of the way through, when the head bandit (played in eunuch make up with icy charm by Chan Hung-lit) shoots a dart through a rice paper wall at a boy listening in outside. The boy turns out to be a novice monk who has now been blinded and is shouting in agony. When one of the senior abbots pleads for mercy the eunuch bandit smiles and orders the child killed. Now the actual stabbing is off camera, but the stabber is hit in the face with a streak of red afterwards. A pretty chilling scene overall.

The highlight reel scene in this film is the inn sequence, which is justly famous. Golden Swallow arrives at the saloon and calls out a coded drink order. The obsequious under boss of the the bandits brings everyone to attention with a sweep of his fan, and the inn clears out. What follows is an excellent cat-and-mouse game between the filmmakers and viewers. The bad guys attack Swallow through faux-accidents, never acknowledging what they're doing until the mutual insult is too great and the tension is released with a great, balletic, fight. The scene comprises about half of this YouTube clip:

Some time in this review should be dedicated to the second, but not secondary, story of the film, because it dominates the ending. Drunken Cat's character is a archetypical character in these stories: the wandering drunk, but it so happens that his drunken fawning conceals a great sadness just as his beggar's songs conceal crucial information from everyone but Golden Swallow. We "discover" the depth of his power in a masterful sequence that was almost certainly the inspiration for the rooftop fight in  CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON where Drunken Cat feigns fear to enter Golden Swallow's bed chamber, makes off with her swords without her noticing, leads her on a breathless chase through the sleeping city before disappearing and leaving behind her swords. When Swallow returns to her hotel room she finds bandits inside looking to kidnap her, and realizes the whole thing was Drunken Cat's gambit to save her life without showing his hand.

The relationship between them deepens until the main villain shows up in full Shaolin regalia. He's the evil head abbot of the monastery the bandits have overrun and he has a long history with Drunken Cat (whom he describes as "a dangerous man who loves playing the fool"). This character inspires fear in everyone in the film, and when Drunken Cat earnestly confesses to Swallow that he doesn't think he beat him alone, we expect them to team up to defeat him, or for Drunken Cat to fail, and Golden Swallow to avenge him. Luckily for us, this film evades our expectations as easily as our heroes evade the bandits' swords and we get a rousing and atypical climax.

Great locations, set design, characters, and action. A beautiful film, and important one too. See it, but don't expect ONG BAK, if you know what I mean.

COOLEST MOMENTS (I didn't get to):

- The temple fight
- The look on the eunuch's face when Swallow has finally chased his ass down.
- When Golden Swallow think she's going to just stab the evil abbot and then finds out a little bit about Iron Armor Tai Chi.

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