Thursday, June 7, 2012

DRUNKEN MASTER (1978, Yuen Woo-ping, Seasonal Films)

If you haven't noticed by now, I like to deal in strong contrasts for the reviews on this site. Yesterday we had the deadly serious Sonny Chiba massacre his way through a squadron of scumbags in THE STREET FIGHTER, and today we have the equally legendary DRUNKEN MASTER, the movie that solidified Jackie Chan's position as the biggest box office draw in Hong Kong since Bruce Lee. Whereas Sonny is power and rage personified, this film is a light farce with impeccably beautiful and physically demanding kung fu choreography. It, along with its predecessor SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW, also made Yuen Woo-ping's reputation as a top action director, and made Jackie's co star Simon Yuen, Yuen Woo-ping's father, into a superstar before his untimely death later that year.

A bit of context for this film: Jackie had been a stuntman on several pictures (most famously in Bruce Lee's FIST OF FURY and ENTER THE DRAGON) and had even landed a small role in John Woo's directorial debut for Golden Harvest THE HAND OF DEATH. The director Lo Wei, who had broken away from Golden Harvest after directing Bruce Lee's first two features, saw something he liked in Jackie and decided to use him as the backbone of his new independent studio.

Unfortunately, Lo Wei saw Jackie as a new Bruce Lee, going so far as to make Jackie's first film a sequel to Bruce Lee's aforementioned FIST OF FURY. After a series of flops, Lo Wei essentially gave up on Jackie and with three films left on his deal, he loaned him out for two pictures to Seasonal Studios run by Ng See-yuen. Seasonal was a small studio that cranked out cheap films quickly, but allowed its talent a wide berth for creative freedom; a sort of Hong Kong AIP. When See-yuen asked Jackie what he'd like to do, Jackie told him his idea for fast and furious parodies of the classic Shaw Brothers kung fu formula. See-yuen hooked Jackie up with Yuen Woo-ping, who was a talented and imaginative director making some extremely bizarre movies at the time, and together they produced two films, both of which broke box office records and made everyone involved into stars. DRUNKEN MASTER is the second, and more famous, of the two.

Why does this film work so well? Let's start with the first character the film introduces us to: a towering assassin named Thunder leg played by Tae kwon do master Hwang Jang Lee. A kung fu comedy runs the risk of losing all its menace which almost defeats the purpose of putting martial arts in the film in the first place. Laughs are great, but at the end of the day the fight scenes should carry the feeling of real danger and the possibility of sudden death, or they're just dance. Whenever Thunder leg is on screen this movie stops joking around, and the first scene in the movie introduces us to him by showing him coldly and easily murder a kung fu master. He'll reappear twice in the film: once in a key scene in the middle of the film that shows Jackie why he must continue training, and once for the final battle. Each time he commands the screen, and his physical screen presence is awe-inspiring. This is a guy who starts off a duel to the death by leaping into the air and shattering a drinking gourd with a perfectly timed kick.

 The second reason this movie works is no surprise to you, Dear Reader: Jackie Chan. Here he played the most legendary hero in Cantonese cinema, Wong Fei-hung, and playing him as a mischievous adolescent. I'll talk about Wong Fei-hung in more depth when I profile movies featuring the character later this month, but suffice to say that he is a figure of great reverence and respect, and Jackie has great fun playing him as a braggart and a rascal, albeit one who has no time for bullies. His first half hour is almost hypnotically watchable, as he moves from terrorizing his teachers; stealing a grope from a pretty girl on the street; getting wrecked by the pretty girl's mother; heroically taking out a bully who is terrorizing peasants; and then finding out the women he harassed earlier were his aunt and cousin whom he hadn't seen in ten years. Jackie's intro in this movie plays a lot like the intros great comedians get in their first few movies. It's almost as if the director is telling you, "Look what this guy can do!"

Now as I mentioned before, this was essentially an independent film and as such, the filmmakers don't have the resources to create the period setting or spice up the films with special effects and wire work. Necessity becomes the mother of invention here, and the filmmakers make up the difference in two ways: First, Jackie pushes his body to incredible levels throughout this film. From holding up wine jugs suspended from his neck as punishment early in the film, to full body situps while filling up a bucket with water during his training, there were quite a few moments where the group I watched this with was frankly shocked at what he was doing.
The second way is that the fight scenes are not just beautiful and balletic, but also thoughtful and clever. The movie has great fun with the kung fu convention of moves that relate to nature, or naming techniques after the movements of animals. Its heroes and villains use this convention sarcastically to mock their opponents, and Jackie triumphantly names movements in the Drunken Style he has learned in a way that remind you of a kid who just discovered he can hit a home run. Cantonese comedy tends to be pretty broad and run towards slapstick, but this parody is actually kind of deft and gives the film's humor some bite.

There are a dozen other wonderful elements to this film that I could go into length about, but my time is short so I'll focus the remainder of the article on the final fight scene which is a no fooling masterpiece of choreography, direction, and performance. It is ten minutes of sustained brilliance between Lee, the super- kick expert and Chan, who has at this point mastered his Drunken Boxing. Chan plays the Drunken Master perfectly here; bobbing and weaving and looking for all the world like he's about to lose control at any moment, while Lee throws kicks that look like they could tear down your house. Control of the fight flows back and forth as Lee is at first taken aback by the Drunken style, and then adapts to it by disrupting Jackie's field of vision with feints and hand gestures which are dramatically shown by the camera taking on Jackie's first person perspective. Spiffy direction there! Jackie then combines the Drunken styles he's learned into a feminine style and, having mastered the dichotomy inside himself, is finally able to overcome our villain. Here it is:

See this film-- it is a thrilling and funny classic that holds up to this day.

COOLEST MOMENTS (I didn't get to):

- An early duel where a bad guy gets ten "free hits" that Jackie makes sure cost him dearly.
- A tavern sequence where Simon Yuen gets to strut his stuff against a Bolo look-alike with interesting chest hair
- Jackie's fight with the Stick King where he first tests out his drunken boxing.

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