Posted by: asianfilmreviews | February 3, 2009

Drunken Master (1978)

drunkenmasterDrunken Master – 醉拳

Director: Yuen Woo-Ping (袁和平)

Cast: Jackie Chan (陳港生, 成龍), Yuen Siu-Tien (袁小田), Hwang Jang-Lee (황정리)

Fitting that the first review I upload is one of the seminal works in Jackie Chan’s film career and one of the most important films to ever come out of Hong Kong. Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, Drunken Master was the perfect showcase for Chan’s inhuman physical abilities and his unique approach to action filmmaking, one that combined the comic mischief of Harold Lloyd and the grace of Gene Kelly with Peking Opera and Chinese martial arts. That the film did so well upon its release in Hong Kong and has aged so well internationally is a testament not only to the creative team behind the film but also to the cross-cultural appeal of physical action.

Chan stars as Wong Fei-Hung (Fei-Hong in some spellings), legendary Chinese folk hero made more explicitly famous internationally later by  Tsui Hark (徐克) and Jet Li (李连杰) in the Once Upon a Time in China (黄飞鸿) trilogy. Deviating from classical and more recent portrayals of Wong as venerable and noble, Chan’s Wong is decidedly sillier and more obnoxious, spending more time chasing girls than taking his kung fu training seriously. To set him straight after potentially ruining the family name, Wong’s father turns him over to his sadistic uncle, Su Hua-Chi (played by Yuen Woo-Ping’s father, Yuen Siu-Tien), who passes on to him martial arts of the Eight Drunken Gods.  Wong is reluctant to learn at first, but after repeated beat downs at the hands of superior martial artists and witnessing the intoxicating allure of said style, he takes up the mantle in an elaborate and, frankly, stunning montage which sees Chan perform each style of the Eight Drunken Gods. Well, technically seven as he has yet to see the potential of the female god Miss Ho (no snickering, you ingrates). But when his father is targeted for assassination by Thunderleg (Korean martial artist Hwang Jang-Lee) over a land deal, Wong learns to embrace his feminine side for the film’s final conflict.

Obviously the story in itself is unremarkable, but this teacher-student relationship and cast of familiar characters combined with Chan’s style of action provided the perfect template for revisionist filmmaking. This is not a film which relied solely on Chan’s athletic ability to attract audiences, as with Tony Jaa (พนม ยีรัมย์) in Ong Bak (องค์บาก). Instead, Chan’s undeniable charisma and penchant for self-deprecating humor make sure no one reaches for the remote to chapter skip to the next fight scene. Take a look at the following clip, particularly the scene in which Wong, feeling a bit cocky knowing he has the upper hand in the fight, tries to hand his dirtied shirt to his still disapproving father.

Chan’s facial expression sells the humor, and this downplaying of his own abilities through comic relief provides a welcome contrast to the often hyper-masculine, emotionless stoicism found in much of the action genre. It also provides a unique spin on the Wong Fei-Hung mythohistory as we see him grow and develop from a little bastard to a heroic figure through intense, physically excruciating training routines, complete with the classic Wong Fei-Hung musical theme. And yet despite the amount of comedy in the film, some of which is pretty broad, there can be no doubt about Chan’s abilities. Watch next as Chan demonstrates two styles of drunken fist only to cap it all off with a parody of the female god Miss Ho, done only as Chan can do it.

The film’s success would prove fortuitous for Chan, who would go on to direct and star in some of filmdom’s greatest action films, including the Project A (A 計劃), Police Story (警察故事), and Armour of God (龍兄虎弟) series. His reliance on emotional action, physical grace, and international sensibilities allowed him to carve a niche for himself, one that is presentationally different from the other icon of Hong Kong cinema – Bruce Lee. Film theorist David Bordwell brings up an excellent point about Chan. His image is not a pure reflection of local cultural values, but rather a conscious creation which influenced dialogue about the Hong Kong identity. It is no wonder, then, that despite his ups and downs, Jackie Chan remains an extremely popular figure in the Asian entertainment scene.


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