Criterion Prediction #242: Drunken Master, by Alexander Miller
Title: Drunken Master
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Cast: Jackie Chan, Yuen Hsiao tieng, Hwang Jang-Lee, Dean Shek, Linda Lin, Yuen Woo-ping
Synopsis: A rascally young upstart, Wong Fei-hung (Chan), is sent to an elderly kung-fu master to learn his unique style of drunken boxing.
Critique: By the late 1970s, kung-fu movies were in something of a slump. The once mega-giant studio of martial arts movies, Shaw Bros were losing numbers to the newcomers at Cinema City, and Golden Harvest. The tragic and untimely death of Bruce Lee left an unfillable void. In the wake of his passing, a never-ending slew of imitators did their best to ape the late master to please their shameless cash-grabbing producers, all trying to capitalize on the inimitable style of Lee. Among them was the sporadically talented hack director/producer Lo Wei (who was known for periodically snoozing while shooting) and his new star-to-be, Jackie Chan. Wei desperately wanted Chan to be the next Bruce, with dopey outings such as New Fist of Fury, suppressing Chan’s natural charisma and penchant for endearing buffoonery. Luckily, Yuen Woo-ping knew what to do with the soon-to-be clown prince of kung-fu cinema and not only created a classic, genre-changing effort but also re-wrote the myth of the real-life Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung. So, with such a venerated cultural legacy, would the prankster interpretation of Wong connect with audiences? The film industry of Hong Kong’s many years of wanton repetition allowed a never-ending slew of wuxia/kung-fu retreads and shameless clones in the mold of Lee. Audiences took to the comedic Drunken Master. The film was a record-breaking smash in Hong Kong, eventually making waves abroad as well. It’s evident that there’s this booming energy that was roiling inside Jackie that was stifled by Lo Wei. Both immaculate talents in martial arts, filmmaking and the filming of martial arts, Yuen and Chan’s collaboration flourished and the sheer energy of Drunken Master beams with enthusiastic zeal. Chan had been yearning to make a true kung-fu comedy. Chan and Yuen’s previous collaboration, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (Yuen’s directorial debut; often considered a precursor to Drunken Master), was proof that the formula had potential and Drunken Master is that potential realized. Not only is the film laden with proficient choreography, stunning, lengthy fight scenes, a myriad of comedic diversions, we see Jackie brandish his stunning physicality in the unbelievable training sequences.
The film established not only the bold dedication Chan has toward his craft but the extent to which he’d strain himself for the good of the film. While Drunken Master is often hailed as the pioneering effort for Chane, Yuen and the subgenre of kung-fu comedy, it arrived after its star endured a long and difficult road. But, this was one of the many titles that catapulted Jackie into superstardom, solidifying his screen persona as a heroic amiable misfit while giving the martial arts cinema the makeover it so desperately needed. An interesting bit of trivia: Lo lent Chan to Seasonal Films for the production of Drunken Master, thinking it wouldn’t add up to much. His mistake and our good fortune.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: I know I’ve sounded off about this before with A Touch of Zen, Dragon Inn, Police Story and Ashes of Time but, thankfully, the artistic merits of Hong Kong action cinema–namely, martial arts movie–are being recognized thanks to the like boutique movie distributors. It seems like we can read the pulse of the UK’s Masters of Cinema series in these matters as they seem to be ahead of the curve with these matters. After their release of A Touch of Zen, Dragon Inn, Police Story I & II (the jury is still out on Ashes of Time), Criterion followed suit. Drunken Master has been available to us in North America with Sony Pictures’ Destination Films moniker, and, later on, Twilight Time put out an appropriate double bill Blu-ray with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. The Twilight Time double feature is nice, but the respected distributor has recently announced their closing the doors, so we can expect that some of their titles will be absorbed by various other distributors. As an capper, both the DVD release and the Twilight Time Blu-ray feature an audio commentary by Hong Kong cinema expert Ric Meyers and let’s hope that this would make its way to any potential Criterion release down the road. Also, there’s gaps in the Cantonese language track that, for some reason, play in English, while this glitch might be charming, a restored language track would be prime. There are rumors that there’s an extended opening fight scene. This might be the kung-fu fan’s equivalent to the missing reel of The Magnificent Ambersons so I won’t hold my breath but crossed fingers can’t hurt.