Tackling films dubbed cinematic landmarks can sometimes feel a bit of a minefield. There are any number of worthy, ‘important’ films which can be argued to have demonstrably changed the face of cinema, but in many instances this doesn’t necessarily equate to the film in question still being enjoyable to watch in the 21st century. However, this most definitely isn’t the case with Drunken Master. For some, it might be a bit of an eyebrow-raiser to see Eureka Entertainment releasing Yuen Woo-Ping’s low-budget 1978 kung fu flick as part of their illustrious Masters of Cinema series; yet while the film may have been introduced to the west via grindhouse cinemas and shoddy VHS tapes, it also breathed new life into Hong Kong martial arts cinema, which seemed to have focused its energies on trying to find the next Bruce Lee in the years following the action icon’s death. The way to advance, of course, was not to emulate Lee’s style, but to experiment with new approaches – and this was just what Woo-Ping and his leading man Jackie Chan did here, in what is widely acknowledged as the first kung fu comedy.
Drunken Master casts a 24-year old Jackie Chan as Wong Fei-Hung, famed real life martial artist portrayed many times in Hong Kong cinema (most notably by Jet Li in the Once Upon a Time in China movies), although you’ll come to know him as Freddy Wong if you’re watching with the classic English dub; not the only option, as Eureka’s edition does boast the rare original Cantonese audio – but I’ll keep calling him Freddy, as I have a soft spot for the dubbed version (especially with lines like “you best go clean crud and piss holes”). The son of the master at an esteemed martial arts school, Freddy is talented but arrogant, with a tendency to get himself in trouble. He lands himself in a particularly pungent world of shit when he sexually harasses a young woman in town – played for laughs of course, this being 70s Hong Kong – then gets into a fight with her surprisingly kung fu-savvy mother, and not long thereafter gets in another fight with the son of a local businessman. Yes, it’s a kung fu movie, people get in fights a lot.
Alas, these particular altercations come back to bite Freddy in the arse, as it turns out the young woman and her kick-ass mum are in fact his very own cousin and aunt, and when his father learns of Freddy’s misdeeds he comes close to beating his son to death then and there. Instead, at the behest of his sister who recognises Freddy’s potential (the aunt’s actually an awesome character, and it’s a shame that she’s only the film’s early scenes), it is decided that the boy’s rebellious spirit must be broken by training – and so it is that Freddy is sent to study under So Hi (Yeun Siu-tien), an aged and notoriously brutal martial arts master, who Freddy is surprised to find is also a drunkard beggar. But pisshead or no, So Hi is every bit as tough as they say, and naturally Freddy doesn’t take too kindly to his gruelling training methods – but the boy will be in desperate need of his master’s instruction after he unwittingly picks a fight with the deadly assassin Thunderleg (Hwang Jan-Lee, known as Yim Tit-sam in the original Cantonese dub, but I can’t call him that without giggling). So it is that Freddy learns So Hi’s secret wine-fuelled martial arts style, the Eight Drunken Immortals.
It’s a standard enough kung fu movie set-up, then: cocky young student must learn humility and master a new style in order to defeat a feared enemy. Indeed, earlier the same year pretty much the entire same cast and crew made Snake in Eagle’s Shadow, which follows the same essential plot. Drunken Master changed the game by adding comedy to the mix, both in the form of simple comedic scenes and gags, and a twist of physical humour to the fight choreography. Again, coming back to breakthrough films like this it can be challenging to appreciate just how groundbreaking the approach may have been at the time, particularly as Jackie Chan went on to develop this approach at length throughout his career. However, Drunken Master remains eye-opening viewing, not least because of how lo-fi a production it is. As a director, Yuen Woo-Ping never does anything fancy; the bulk of the martial arts sequences (which do make up the bulk of the film) are filmed in long shots and long takes with a largely static camera, meaning all the kinetic energy that flies of the screen comes from the cast, who are very clearly performing these remarkable physical feats themselves without the assistance of wires, doubles, or safety equipment of any kind in places. In an contemporary interview with Jackie Chan included in the extras (not the most gripping or insightful discussion it must be said, as Jackie just seems bored and says “I don’t remember” to most questions), the actor casually shrugs off the fact that he was repeatedly injured on both this film and most of the others he made afterwards. While the overriding tone of the film may be comedic, there are still countless moments when you can’t help wincing, knowing that it had to hurt; foreshadows of Jackass, perhaps? Plus it isn’t just the fight scenes that hurt, as Jackie’s training montages are pretty damn brutal; half-surprised we haven’t seen some of these techniques brought back in modern gyms, I can imagine Crossfit types going crazy for them.
‘Masters of Cinema’ canonisation notwithstanding, Drunken Master is still heavy with transgressive charm. The humour is very much of its time, i.e. staggering in its political incorrectness, and most of the characters are broadly drawn stereotypes (hmm, come to think of it Hong Kong cinema’s humour never really advanced much beyond that…) Perhaps most surprising now is how casually the film deals with the subject of alcoholism; one sequence sees So-Hi attempting to fight an opponent whilst suffering with the DTs, which it’s hard to envisage being played for laughs now. This is something Jackie Chan expresses regret over in the aforementioned interview, remarking that in the 1994 Drunken Master sequel (which I haven’t seen) he made a point of emphasising that alcoholism is a bad thing, so as to send the right message to the kids. Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I rather prefer it when an action movie doesn’t try to preach morality, and instead just shows the audience a good time. In this, Drunken Master still hits the bullseye dead centre. It’s a film that belongs in the collection of anyone with a taste for action cinema, and aficionados should be very happy with this Eureka edition which looks and sounds great, and boasts insights for various martial arts experts in the extras, most notably The Raid director Gareth Evans, who appears in a video interview discussing the influence Drunken Master and Jackie’s movies in general have had on his own body of work.
Eureka Entertainment release Drunken Master in dual format DVD & Blu-ray on Monday, 24th April.