Yuen Woo-ping/ Hong Kong/ 1978/ 110 mins
On dual format Blu-Ray/ DVD now
Martial arts films aren’t always according the highest level of respect among film critics. Among western audiences they often receive cult acclaim rather than mainstream love, with a few notable exceptions such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The influence the genre has had on Hollywood can’t be denied however, and two of its biggest exports are Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-ping, known for his incredible choreography on The Matrix and Kill Bill. About time therefore for a lavish rerelease of one of their earliest and most legendary films, Drunken Master.
This classic merges dazzling kung-fu with Buster Keaton-style slapstick in the story of the younger days of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung. Chan portrays him as a talented, yet undisciplined and mischievous fighter who is sent to train with Beggar So (Yuen Siu-tien), a harsh master known both for the frequent maiming of his students, and his incredible propensity for the consumption of alcohol. Wong learns the eight secret techniques of Drunken Boxing to fight a notorious mercenary hired to kill his father.
While Drunken Master may now look slightly dated in its approach compared to the sheer beauty of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the likes of Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers, or the shuddering violence of The Raid, the acrobatic stunt work and the athleticism of the performers still shines. That they manage to make the action funny at the same time is really quite astonishing. Chan’s cheeky charisma is on megawatt display and he forms a great double act with Yuen’s strawberry-nosed, straw-haired So. Their master and student dynamic has echoed down generations in the likes of Karate Kid and Kill Bill.
The humour is undoubtedly broad, even a little bit crude at times, and the story is a standard one in martial arts films. Also, those who’ve come to this film of the back of the more recent, polished films of the 21st century, may find the hyper-stylised sound effects a little disconcerting. Each punch and kick is accompanied by a whip-crack effect, and it’s not always convincingly matched up with the action. This does add to the overall comic effect of the film however, and it’s impossible to watch without a big grin smeared on your face.
Perhaps what impresses most is the fairly restrained editing. It becomes apparent just how much the performers put themselves on the line over the lengthy takes. Yuen doesn’t rely on quick jump cuts to create the illusion of fast-paced action. It’s all there on the screen. It’s easy to see why these films were embraced by action fans around the world, thirsty for ever-increasing levels of intensity and skill. For this reason, one can forgive the some of the more dated aspects of Drunken Master and appreciate a justified classic.