Drunken Master / The Story of the Drunken Master / Drunken Monkey in the Tiger’s Eyes / Eagle Claw, Snake Fist, Cat’s Paw, Part 2 / Jui Kuen / Zui Quan (1978) ***½
This may come as something of a surprise, given the otherwise quite considerable breadth of my interest in trashy, low-budget cinema, but I’ve never been that big a fan of martial arts movies. (Then again, the fact that I’ve somehow managed to review more than 350 films without ever venturing into chopsocky territory might have tipped one or two of you off...) It isn’t that I harbor any particular dislike for the genre, but the idea of watching a bunch of skinny Chinese guys kicking each other in the face for an hour and a half has never engaged me in the same way that monsters and zombies and promiscuous French girls do. But whatever my feelings about the genre as a whole, it’s impossible to argue with Jackie Chan. Even now that he’s in his 50’s, he’s an awesome physical performer, a solid comedic actor, and probably the most charismatic action hero the movies have ever seen. He was just as amazing as a young man, and because he hadn’t yet established himself as a brand-name in the late 1970’s, his early movies never tried to rely on the mere fact of his presence in the cast to catch and hold the audience’s attention. Of these early films, Drunken Master/Zui Quan is probably the most famous, and it is still almost certainly the best kung fu comedy I’ve ever seen.
The premise underlying the bulk of that comedy is one that would have carried just about the maximum possible resonance in its native land, too. Though he is little known in the West (outside the hard core of Hong Kong movie geeks, that is), Wong Fei-Hong is just about China’s biggest folk hero. A martial artist of awesome ability who lived between 1847 and 1924, Wong is often referred to as the Chinese Robin Hood for his unstinting willingness to use his formidable skills in defense of the downtrodden. The first movie about him appeared as early as 1928, and more than 100 Wong Fei-Hong films have been released since then. Drunken Master was intended as a loving spoof of the Wong Fei-Hong legend, predicated upon the idea (and apparently the idea was Chan’s own) that Wong, like most people, would have gone through a period of rebelliousness, shiftlessness, and irresponsibility when he was a youth. Its Wong stand-in, called Freddy Wong, becomes an invincible kung fu master almost in spite of himself, only making the jump from good to truly great when he discovers a way to do it that involves as much debauchery as it does discipline.
My favorite thing about old kung fu movies is that they Do Not Fuck Around. Drunken Master’s very first scene consists of a fast-paced fight between some guy whose name is utterly unimportant and a universally feared professional assassin named Thunder Foot (Hwang Jang Lee, from The Invincible Armor and Story of the Dragon). As you might gather from his handle, Thunder Foot is a master of some superhumanly effective kung fu kicking technique, and he makes short work of He Whom We Will Not Bother To Name.
And then, suddenly, it’s as though we’ve moved on to another movie entirely. In some kung fu training center or other, Freddy Wong (Jackie Chan of course) and one of his buddies are clowning around and generally making a fool of their teacher. The instructor eventually gets fed up with this, and pulls Freddy aside to make an example of him. Bad move there. Freddy’s kung fu is far in advance of his teacher’s, and Freddy not only kicks the older man’s ass, he has time to subject him to all manner of elaborate physical taunts while he’s at it. Freddy then heads off with his pals from school for a trip to the market, where he bets one of them a dinner out that he can get the pretty girl who walks by the table where they’re eating their rice balls to kiss him. Freddy is successful, of course, via some amazingly sly subterfuge involving a snake and a non-existent “something in his eye,” but then the girl’s mother (Linda Lin, from Dance of the Drunken Mantis) shows up, and picks a kung fu fight with Freddy. No, really! And oh my God, does she ever lay the smackdown on Freddy. Maybe she ought to be teaching that class.
Now that’s three kung fu dustups so far, and we’re well less than ten minutes into the movie. But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, because number four is on the way. After fleeing the wrath of the pretty girl’s mother, Freddy stumbles upon that scenario without which no martial arts movie is complete, the brutalization of a defenseless peasant by a gang of kung fu thugs. Freddy, presumably looking to salve his manly pride after having a woman twenty years his senior mop the floor with him, springs into action and lays the head thug out in a manner that had me thinking delirious thoughts of Moe Howard with a black belt. The associate thugs wisely refrain from getting involved.
Next up is the scene that confirms our growing suspicions that Drunken Master is supposed to be funny first and foremost. Freddy comes home, and his father, Robert Wong, tells him to come say hello to his aunt and cousin, who are in town for a visit and whom Freddy has never met before. Except that he actually has met them— the visiting ladies are none other than the girl from the market and her ass-kicking mom! Oh, the hilarity! Robert Wong has just begun furiously planning draconian punishments for his lecherous, incestuous son when his neighbor, Mr. Lee (Ging Man Fung, from Rivals of Kung Fu and Enter the Fat Dragon), bursts into the room at the head of a gang of retainers. Lee turns out to be the father of the guy Freddie beat up in the market, and neither knowing nor caring that his son brought the mauling on himself, he noisily insists on revenge. Auntie, knowing from recent experience how good Freddie’s kung fu is, suggests that one of Lee’s men be allowed to fight Freddie, who will not be permitted to strike back until his opponent has landed ten blows. This solution proves amenable to all, at least until Freddie has taken his ten hits and gets to go on the offensive. Lee’s bully-boy, far from making good on his promise to put Freddie down with just three hits, has to be carried out feet-first alongside the first victim of Freddie’s prowess. “One cripple enters, two cripples leave,” indeed.
But Robert Wong still believes his son must be taught a lesson, and so he hires the legendarily hard-assed kung fu instructor Sam Seed to take Freddy on as a student. Freddy panics at this news, and runs away from home. His travels take him to an expensive restaurant in the next village over, where he attempts to scam a meal he couldn’t possibly afford from the obviously wealthy man sitting at the table beside him. Unfortunately for Freddie, this man proves to be the owner of the restaurant, and the manager— his son— catches Freddy in his bid to skip out on the check. The manager directs Freddy’s attention to a sign on the wall, which I imagine reads something to the effect of “check-jumpers will be beaten severely,” and then introduces Freddy to the chef (Bolo Yeung lookalike Lee Chun-wa), whose headband bears the same slogan. Thus commences Drunken Master’s sixth big fight scene, in which Freddie gets the shit kicked out of him until a feeble-looking old bum (the great Yuen Siu Tien, from Taoism Drunkard and Snake Fist Fighter) steps up and starts handing out free samples of whoop-ass. Freddy and the old man flee to the relative safety of the countryside at the earliest opportunity.
Naturally, the old man is really Sam Seed, who has been following Freddy ever since he skipped town, and when Freddy hears that, the result is yet another battle, in which Freddie throws every kung fu style he knows— Panther, Horse, Tiger, Snake, Crane, Monkey— at Sam Seed, all to no avail whatsoever. Freddy is finally forced to concede defeat, and so begins his year-long apprenticeship with the hard-drinking old kung fu master. This, of course, signals the beginning of the obligatory series of torturous training vignettes, broken up every five to ten minutes by more fight scenes. (The best of these involves a man named Iron Head Rat, who practices some kind of weird head-butting technique.) Freddie eventually tires of this severe discipline, and he runs away again. But scarcely an hour has passed before Freddie comes face to face with Thunder Foot (Who? Oh, yeah— him!), who whomps him even more brutally than his aunt had, and then humiliates him further by burning his pants on his campfire and ordering him to “crawl between my legs and go clean some toilets or something!” (Thunder Foot has some of the best lines in this movie. At one point, after hearing that Freddie learned kung fu from his father, Thunder Foot tells him, “I’d say your father is quite useless— I wouldn’t hire him to wipe my ass!”) Freddie slinks back to Sam Seed to beg forgiveness and resume his training.
And now we come to the real point of this movie. The reason Robert Wong hired Sam Seed to train Freddie was because Seed is the master of an exceptionally powerful secret technique he calls the Eight Drunk Gods. Each god corresponds to a particular element of the technique— several distinct styles of kicking and punching, a stranglehold attack, an extremely strange move that uses a wine pot as a weapon, a pinch attack that can yank out a man’s rib if practiced diligently and performed correctly— and Freddie devotes himself to studying them all. All, that is, except the Eighth God, the Drunken Goddess Flaunting Her Body. Freddie thinks that technique is for sissies, and makes only the most perfunctory efforts to learn it. That’s not going to become an important plot point in the final reel— no, not at all...
Freddie discovers the final secret to the Eight Drunk Gods when Iron Head Rat comes to Sam Seed’s cottage looking for revenge while Freddie is out buying wine for his master. Freddie returns from his errand just in time to see Seed having to fight Iron Head Rat and a friend of his called the King of Sticks (he fights with a staff— who’d have guessed?) stone cold sober, and getting his butt handed to him on a plate. Evidently, in order to wield the Eight Drunk Gods, you have to be five or six sheets to the wind yourself! Iron Head Rat and the King of Sticks (Hsia Hsu, of Thunderkick and The Oily Maniac) return home after satisfying themselves that Rat has been repaid for the drubbing he received earlier, leaving Freddie to tend to his mauled instructor. We have now reached the second necessary turn in the plot of any kung fu film, the defeat of the Good Master, which requires the Good Student to swear revenge. This Freddie does, and he goes to exact it in the very next scene, where he shows up at the King of Sticks’ place with a big jug of wine, and leaves with two huge ones for Sam Seed after putting the King’s balls in a sling.
The old man isn’t home when Freddie gets there, however. According to the note on the table, Freddie’s year is up, he has learned all the old master can teach him, and the time has come for him to return to his family. But Seed will always be with Freddie in spirit, and if ever he needs him, the old man will be there. It’s a good thing that year is up, too, because back home, Mr. Lee has crossed swords with Robert Wong over the rights to some village land which is sitting on top of a rich coal deposit, and the would-be land magnate has hired Thunder Foot to rub his rival out. Thunder Foot almost kills Wong before Freddie arrives (Sam Seed, true to his word, magically appears at his student’s side with a jug of murderously powerful wine) to take the assassin on. But wouldn’t you know it, the only viable counter to Thunder Foot’s invincible kung fu is one element of the Eight Drunk Gods Freddie refused to learn. Freddie is forced to improvise his own version of the Drunken Goddess Flaunting Her Body, and the movie ends abruptly (after a full eighteen fucking minutes of continuous kung fu!) with Thunder Foot’s defeat, leaving the conflict underlying the whole confrontation completely unresolved.
But you know what? Even without anything resembling a real ending, Drunken Master is hundreds of times better than just about any American-made action movie you could name— thousands of times better if you want to narrow the field of consideration to just those American films that somehow involve the Asian martial arts. Director Yuen Woo-Ping is justly famous among fans of kung fu flicks, and has even begun to attract a fair amount of mainstream attention in the West on the strength of his fight choreography for movies like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Even those fight scenes that are intended mainly as slapstick comedy are exciting in ways that few Western action directors have ever bothered to try; it’s been said innumerable times by innumerable other reviewers, but the contrast between the hyperkinetic fights orchestrated by Yuen and his Hong Kong compatriots and the static, lifeless work turned out by most of their Western counterparts is breathtaking. Watch Drunken Master after something like Albert Pyun’s Cyborg for an especially stark illustration of this point. The other thing you get watching an old Hong Kong kung fu flick is a strong sense that the creators of these films understood that people watch action movies for action first and foremost. Show me any Hollywood action movie that features four fucking fight scenes in the first ten minutes! Can’t do it, can you? It’s certainly true that Hong Kong cinema would eventually become just as dull, formulaic, and predictable as Hollywood usually is, but Hong Kong filmmaking on a good day is like nothing else on Earth. Drunken Master was made on one of the best of all Hong Kong’s good days.