It might not look like it from the trailer or even after seeing the film, but DRUNKEN MASTER is a movie that has a surprising depth. Without context (imagine stumbling into a Chinatown theater in 1978) DRUNKEN MASTER is 90 minutes of goofy hijinks and mind-blowing martial arts action. Add in some context, however, and it also emerges as an important waypoint in the development of Hong Kong cinema. Which might be a bit of a surprise. It’s true, though. It really is. I swear.
Let’s take a look at what makes it so special.
In Which Jackie Chan Becomes Jackie Chan
For starters, DRUNKEN MASTER launched Jackie Chan’s storied career and kicked off the kung fu comedy genre, which Jackie and others mined with great success for decades. While Jackie had been kicking around for a couple of years and the same cast and crew had had some success with the earlier SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW (screening at the Brattle in August) it was this film that really captured the public’s imagination. DRUNKEN MASTER took the same basic training odyssey that had been successful in SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW (and countless other 1970s films), blended it with creative drunken style kung fu choreography and layered it on top of an irreverent take on the early history of real-life Chinese martial arts hero Wong Fei Hung. Add in Jackie’s unique physical gifts as a stuntman and comedian and It turned out to be was a magical combination.
Wong Fei Hung, for the uninitiated, is one of the central figures in the history of martial arts cinema (and martial arts in general.) Born in 1847, Wong was a famous martial artist and physician in Guangzhou (Canton) whose story has gone on to be featured in hundreds of movies and televisions shows over the past 60+ years. Every major Chinese martial arts film star has played him on one occasion or another and his theme song, “On the General’s Orders”, is the Hong Kong equivalent of the William Tell Overture. It’s an instantly identifiable piece of music associated with a beloved, iconic character. He’s generally portrayed as the epitome of calm intelligence, wisdom and martial arts skill. The modern reference is Jet Li’s stoic and graceful portrayal in Tsui Hark’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series. To show, as DRUNKEN MASTER does, Wong Fei Hung as a goofy, immature hot-head plays with expectations in a way that’s fun and dramatically pleasing. To see Jackie’s young Wong Fei Hung as a hot mess makes his eventual rise a bit more rewarding than the average Wong Fei Hung story.
Jackie has since gone on to conquer the world a few times over, producing global hits and generally blowing people’s minds with his unique blend of martial arts mayhem, comedy and incomparable stunt-work.
While he’s the biggest in terms of being a household name, Jackie isn’t the only person involved with DRUNKEN MASTER who’s gone on to do great things. Let’s take a look at the other half of that equation, Yuen Woo-Ping and his (and his family’s) place in the history of Hong Kong cinema.
Yuen Clan Rocks the World
Through Yuen Woo-Ping and his father Simon Yuen Siu-Tien DRUNKEN MASTER knits together some of the most important and influential films in the past sixty years of Hong Kong and martial arts cinema. Let’s take a quick walk through that history.
Simon Yuen Siu-Tien was near the end of his life when he appeared in this film. He died the next year, in 1979 having had a few months to bask in the glory of his role in DRUNKEN MASTER. At that point Yuen had been working as an actor for nearly 30 years and he started off much like he finished up- on top, making movies about Wong Fei Hung. He first appeared in STORY OF HUANG FEIHONG, the first of more than 75 Wong Fei-Hung films starring the legendary Kwan Tak-Hing. This long-running series forms the foundation upon which the entire kung fu movie genre is built.
Yuen Woo-Ping himself worked on the series as a stuntman in his youth. Woo-Ping eventually moved on to the famous Shaw Brothers Studio. There he notably worked as a stuntman on the historically important Jimmy Wang Yu film, THE CHINESE BOXER. After that he kept plugging away, gaining credits as a choreographer until, in 1978, he ended up at Ng See-Yuen’s Seasonal Films, where he was given the chance to direct SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW and DRUNKEN MASTER.
From that point on, his career has been a series of successes as both a director and action director, the pace and scale of which has only increased as the global demand for Hong Kong style action has grown. Starting with 1979’s THE MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER (the story of Wong Fei Hung’s most important student Lam Sai “Butcher” Wing) his Hong Kong output alone would have been enough to mark his career a success. He discovered Donnie Yen in the 1980s and directed him in his many of his best early roles, including the classic IRON MONKEY (1993), where Donnie plays Wong Fei-Hung’s father Wong Kei-ying (who’s a character in DRUNKEN MASTER.)
I told you there were a lot of Wong Fei Hung movies.
Things accelerated soon after that when Yuen was tapped by the Wachowskis for the fight choreography in THE MATRIX. The Wachowskis had seen Yuen’s fight work in Gordon Chan’s FIST OF LEGEND (1994), starring Jet Li. They have good taste. Every fight in FIST OF LEGEND, from start to finish, is a brilliant, rewind it, what-the-hell-just-happened masterpiece. With that in mind the Wachowskis has the good sense to let Yuen do his thing without too much interference, which (I like to think) greatly contributed to the success of THE MATRIX.
The next year he did the fights for the Ang Lee’s epic CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. Working his magic on two such high profile successful films in such a short time solidified his reputation as one of the best in the business. In the years since Yuen has been the go-to action director for high profile martial arts films in Hollywood and Hong Kong working on films like Stephen Chow’s KUNG FU HUSTLE, Ronny Yu’s FEARLESS, Wong Kar Wai’s THE GRANDMASTER, IP MAN 3 (with Mike Tyson!) and KILL
BILL VOL. 2.
Right in the middle of all of this history is DRUNKEN MASTER.
Speaking of which, before I go I should spend a little bit of time talking about the merits of the movie itself.
75% Action. 90% Goofy.
DRUNKEN MASTER starts off with a slapstick kung fu comedy sequence and doesn’t stop with the jokes and fights until the credits roll. This mixture of Jackie’s patented goofiness and non-stop martial arts action practically wrote the blueprint for Jackie’s international stardom. The only thing it really lacks from Jackie’s later career is neck- breaking, skull- fracturing stunt work. This omission, however, is offset by the intricate fight choreography and addition of two scene stealers into the cast, the aforementioned Simon Yuen Siu-Tien and Hwang Jiang-Lee.
Hwang, a Korean martial artist notable for being one of the best kickers of the seventies, plays the villain in this film and his menacing physical skills are the perfect foil for Jackie’s graceful acrobatics.
Yuen plays Beggar So, the titular drunken master, with a wobbly grace that belies his advanced age. Although he is doubled for extensively, his Peking Opera trained martial arts skills still shine through perfectly. He’s also a perfectly charming actor who holds his own in every way with Chan.
He was so popular in this role he reprised it another three times (in DANCE OF THE DRUNK MANTIS, STORY OF DRUNKEN MASTER, and WORLD OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER) before he died the next year.
Admittedly, the film isn’t perfect. Depending on your sense of humor the jokes might drive you mad after a while and the plot is thin even by the standards of a kung fu training film. But really? Those problems are more than made up for by the exhilarating training and fight sequences. They’re truly amongst the best of the 1970s and they showcase Jackie Chan before he broke every bone in his body twice over. That counts for a fair bit in my book and I hope, after seeing DRUNKEN MASTER, you agree.