After the demise of Hong Kong Legends, British fans of martial arts classics were left wanting if they wanted to advance their collection or discover new favourites. Terracotta and 88 films picked up some of the slack but never enough to fill the void left by one of the kings of the DVD era, at this stage, it is unlikely this will ever change especially with the gradual but significant sway to VOD. However, when it comes to martial arts cinema established distributors are regularly throwing their hats into the ring with the latest contender coming from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema and their release of King Hu’s classics and then there is the latest entry with Yuen Woo-Ping’s Drunken Master.
Jackie Chan stars as real life Folk Hero Wong Fei-Hung, star of over 100 films including Jet Li’s Once Upon a Time in China saga, Donnie Yen’s Iron Monkey, Sammo Hun’s Magnificent Butcher and a few choice cuts from Gordon Liu’s illustrious filmography. This iteration of the historical figure is played as a fool, picking fights with people in his Dad’s martial arts school, manipulatively flirting with a girl who ends up being his cousin and standing up for the downtrodden with a heroism stunningly negated in a scene where all his indiscretions come back to haunt him. Referred to in an earlier scene as Naughty Panther, Chan’s Wong Fei-Hung is punished with extreme training exercises which he cheats his way out of. His Dad is rightly furious and after being talked out of ex-communicating his son by his estranged sister, he instead decides to effectively banish the naughty panther for a year of tutelage under his uncle, the notorious Beggar So (Simon Yuen).
It may openly comedic, even so, any martial arts film is first and foremost an action piece and therein lies the main fault when it comes to the storytelling of Drunken Master – simply put, the antagonist is incidental at best. Hwang Jang Lee (Thunderleg) is established as a legitimate villain of a straight-faced genre film in the opening scene, however, he only appears a further two times. Once to disparage Chan whilst in his underwear – providing his low point – and later when the assassin is hired to kill someone in his family. Given the regularity that the protagonist is beaten up and how often he is put through extreme training, it could be debated that Drunken Master is something of an anti-genre picture akin to the classic training montage packed 36th Chamber of Shaolin, with both being supremely clever at subverting their own DNA.
For the first hour, Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei-Hung is firmly traditional in his kung fu with each fight composed like a classic scene from any number of classic Shaw Brothers of Golden Harvest productions, only the hero here is beaten up fiercely and wins only by the leanest of margins. So closely contested is one fight that it is decided by hitting a practitioner of the iron head technique with an ever harder hammer. Then the act of learning Drunken Boxing starts and Yuen Woo-Ping and Jackie Chan start playing up the very absurdity of the genre with a style every bit as ludicrous as mad monkey kung-fu. Only instead of imitating a member of the animal kingdom, the eight drunken gods style sees him move with an uneven unparalleled and unpredictable fluidity. Add to that, the ultimate drunken form is a campy exaggeration of a drunk woman and you have a brazen takedown of the martial arts film whilst also being one of the finest martial arts films ever made. This school of Kung Fu does exist but not in the caricatured form constructed here, nonetheless, this is a cinematic irony to end all irony’s.
Jackie Chan is no stranger to danger. Famously, he almost died filming Armour of God, he fell off the roof of a large building in Project A and according to his book (I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action), he nearly lost an eye working on Drunken Master. Unlike all of those aforementioned stunt-heavy pieces, this 1978 film is much more laid back with the comedy coming from pratfalls and less life threatening slapstick recalling his oft-remarked upon love of Silent film icon Buster Keaton. One such scene sees Chan pogoing on a chair away from Hwang Jang-Lee whilst in his underwear, a delightfully silly proposition that puts a smile on the face the way only Jackie Chan knows how to. Well, him and Keaton, of course.
To return to the comparison to Gordon Liu’s Chamber of Shaolin, the much more impressive achievement in this 70s martial arts classic is the physicality. The choreography is one thing and incredible in its own right, as would be expected from the world’s most famous fight choreographer sitting in the director’s chair, Yuen Woo-Ping (he worked on Kill Bill and The Matrix). At this point in his career, the most famous Chinese actor in the world worked primarily in comedic wuxia (historical), hence there was a degree of orthodoxy in his films. Drunken Master has that, but it also saw the continued crystallisation of what become the slapstick, stunt-heavy, prop-based Jackie Chan style which helped him become one of the most famous actors on the planet.
In today’s cinematic landscape with its insane, multi-million dollar budgets it’s incredibly easy to overlook small things like training sequences and the Drunken Master is full of some of the most gruelling seen in cinema. Lau Kar-Leung’s 36th Chamber is often cited as the ultimate training kung fu movie, but the scenes in that film almost function as video game challenges and none had an iota of the physicality exhibited here. Jackie Chan had all to do the things contained in this film, there could be no avoiding it with tricky camera techniques. He had to elevated sit-ups moving cups of water between buckets, he had to crack walnuts with his hands, he had his arms stretched and contorted by Simon Yuen (Beggar So) to learn the forms of Eight Drunken Gods martial arts.
Few films will have their actor working harder than Jackie Chan does here. It’s sad then that the only way for actors to be appreciated is for them to work in extreme natural conditions in most remote corners of the world or undergo extreme weight loss or gain. Whether it’s this or Donnie Yen learning Wing Chun for the Ip Man movies, martial arts cinema deserves better and this film shows just how misjudged Jackie Chan really is. And perhaps this is the path to a more balanced recognition in this part of the world, Yuen Woo-Ping’s Drunken Master has been given a wonderful treatment from one of the most respected home video labels in the Western World – a brand that is also home to all manner of art-house legends and classics.