***This is the fourth entry in Rob Argent’s series introducing us to the essential Kung Fu films that have helped to define the genera. Readers looking to get up to speed on his in his earlier essays can find them by clicking on the following links: first, second and third. Drunken Master has always been one of my favorite films. Students of popular culture interested in how the idea of “martial virtue” was used in the entertainment industry of the 1970s will find it to be a treasure trove of observations. It has also had a huge visual impact on a number of later films. For that reason alone its usually selected as one of the most iconic Chinese martial arts films of its decade. Enjoy***
Since the late nineteen twenties there has been an abundance of martial art related movies, ranging from outlandish fantasy (known in China as wuxia), through gritty hard hitting drama to high concept action pieces. The majority of these have originated from either mainland China or Hong Kong, with the former generally focusing on historically orientated titles and the latter producing more modern, explosive fare.
In this series I will be looking at a number of iconic Kung Fu films that, for one reason or another, had a significant effect on the way we watch martial arts on the cinema screen. Some of them are well known and have created certain expectations about the genre, while others are lesser known titles that have provided a different take on how to portray martial artists and their practices. Nevertheless, all of them are fundamentally based on the world of “Kung Fu” in the public imagination. Different fighting styles are always on display, but the “Chinese martial arts,” broadly understood, are the centerpiece of each production. The following post examines Jackie Chan’s 1978 movie, “Drunken Master.”
Set long before his eventual rise to prominence as a respected martial artist and national hero, Drunken Master tells the fictionalized tale of a young, brash Wong Fei Hung who begins the story living an easy life off his family’s prior success. Despite his parents’ and friends’ repeated attempts to get him to work hard and make something of himself, Wong Fei Hung – played here by Jackie Chan – continues to get into trouble because of his carefree attitude and quick temper, backed up by some not inconsiderable fighting abilities.
These easy days come to an end once his disapproving father arranges for the legendary master “Beggar So” to train him, basically in the hopes of instilling some discipline. After numerous attempts to avoid So’s grueling training routine, in increasingly ridiculous ways, Fei Hung eventually comes to learn the old master’s mysterious drunken boxing style. In time he will need these new abilities to face the elusive assassin Yan Ti San, who is set to strike at Wong’s family.
From Extra to Actor
In recent years, many film fans and critics have noted that Jackie Chan’s Hollywood efforts have become increasingly generic and lackluster, with projects like “The Tuxedo” and “The Medallion” receiving particularly harsh reviews and poor box office returns. This has generally been attributed to heavy reliance on CGI and wire work, which flies (pun intended) in the face of how he came to prominence all those years ago. His early Hong Kong titles proudly showcased an actor and martial artist who was not afraid of performing his own stunts.
While age, and the increasingly difficulty of finding insurance companies willing to cover his work in America, have both been problems for Chan, the shift in effects work and choreography has been jarring for a large number of his fans. To watch Drunken Master is to see a fighter and filmmaker at the top of his game, trusted with artistic control. It also featured a seasoned cast and crew. They were also pushing the envelope in terms of action and ambition in a genre whose style and conventions had been established years before.
Although many of us will be familiar with his work, it is worth reminding ourselves of just how impressive Chan’s career has been. Through a mix of truly impressive skills, overwhelming popularity in Hong Kong and sheer hard work, he had already appeared in thirty films in the five year period before Drunken Master reached cinema screens. In roles ranging from an extra, to a stuntman, writer, lead actor, fight choreographer and director, Chan had been involved in many different aspects of the film-making process, giving him the opportunity to learn what made a good fight scene (and a good movie in general) both behind and in front of the camera.
Due to the relatively low budgets – and lax and safety rules of kung fu movies made in Hong Kong during the sixties and seventies – Chan put himself through countless stunts to give his productions an edge over the other films out at the time. Here is a man prepared to risk injury to get the best shot, as evidenced by many of the end credit sequences to his films which often feature painful outtakes and mishaps whilst filming. To be honest, these can be the best shots in some of his weaker movies. In his autobiography he has stated that he almost lost an eye while shooting Drunken Master.
Preparing To Become “The Master”
Hot on the heels of “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow,” which had been a massive success earlier that year, the same cast and crew went straight into production on Drunken Master. Alongside Chan was veteran producer Ng See-Yuen and acclaimed director Yuen Woo-Ping, who is as famous for his later Hollywood fight work as he is for his Chinese directing. The range of fighting styles on display here take in Hung Ga, numerous animal styles (Snake, Crane and Tiger are all clearly shown at some point or another) and the eponymous drunken boxing of Zui Quan that the protagonist has to master.
While in reality Zui Quan is a physically challenging form that demands exceptional balance to imitate erratic, drunken behavior and movements – which would be used to confuse opponents and launch unpredictable attacks – this movie takes a more literal interpretation of the name. In this case, when a proponent of Zui Quan is actually intoxicated, their fighting abilities improve! There is a passing mention that taken to extremes, the style can ultimately lead to the student becoming a hopeless alcoholic, but this is something of an aside in a film that is ultimately a lighthearted action title and not a serious study of the effects of one’s lifestyle on their abilities as a fighter.
The initial fight scenes incorporate a number of comedic elements to show both Wong Fei Hung’s mischievous nature along with the fact that he isn’t necessarily a bad person; after all, no one gets seriously hurt in these opening battles and the secondary characters, who are for the most part peasants, tolerate the disruptive antics of a member of a well-respected, socially important family. A series of slapstick routines and easily smashed props are thrown into the mix as well, giving the opening scenes the feel of a Buster Keaton title as opposed to a Bruce Lee one.
This all changes when the plot pushes our main character on to his training in drunken boxing. It is this montage that has made the film memorable for so many viewers. There is an emphasis on hard work and loyalty on one’s master, ideas which are prevalent in Chinese society, but not so much in Western ones. After all, there are very few popular American or European productions that choose to spend quite so much time showing the hero diligently training compared to the offerings in Chinese kung fu films.
Anyone watching the film from a predominantly Western perspective might not think that Wong Fei Hung’s initial rebellious outbursts are all that serious. Yet the first two fights quickly and succinctly demonstrate why his behavior has become unacceptable to his peers. The first starts with him standing up to his teacher, which would be a direct affront to his elders and authority. The second fight comes about after his ill-advised attempts to make advances on a woman who later turns out to be his cousin. His lewd attitude in this scene affects his social standing, after which he has managed to embarrass himself in front of his superiors and contemporaries.
Interestingly enough, Zui Quan was a form considered unfitting for a woman to learn, due to the traditional attitudes towards drinking in China. It was frowned upon for women to indulge in any kind of heavy drinking. This fighting style incorporated a similar set of social views.
Our hero’s transition from prosperous upbringing to destitution is symbolically enacted as he is thrust into the “world of rivers and lakes.” This term is used for the hidden society of outlaws, exiles and martial artists where hand to hand combat is commonplace. Essentially the young Wong Fei Hung has hit rock bottom. His only option to restore his honor and social position is through the mastery of a demanding martial style. In this sense, it is through Beggar So’s knowledge and wisdom that the protagonist’s character arc really takes shape.
While not specifically alluded to in the film itself, the primary villain of the piece is played by Korean taekwondo exponent Hwang Jang Lee. His character Yan Ti San works his way quickly and efficiently through anyone who challenges him, using a variety of swift, graceful kicks that offer a different aesthetic to the kung fu employed by the other actors. His persona embodies a typical kung fu feature antagonist, a foreign master who, while tough enough to pose a threat, can ultimately be defeated by the proper use of a Chinese fighting system.
As with many films of this type, the techniques used to beat the bad guy were always available to the population, it merely required a hero who was able to find a master and then to work hard enough to become adept at fighting. In this instance the style in question is The Eight Drunken Immortals – a supposedly long lost set of techniques that were most likely made up by the filmmakers who pulled together disparate elements from other real forms. Learning this style requires intense training. Once mastered, victory will also result in the student earning their honor and publicly demonstrating their self-discipline (a core Confucian virtue). It would actually be hard to think of a better advertisement for marching your children down to the nearest kung fu school.
For anyone disappointed with Jackie Chan’s big name Hollywood films, or just wanting to see how he established himself, this is the perfect introduction to his earlier canon. For better or worse, all of his recognized trademarks are already in place by the middle of the seventies – clichéd plot, inventive stunt work, rudimentary dialogue and varied and interesting use of a variety of kung fu styles. To complain about any of this film’s faults (and I will admit that there are a few) is to miss both the point of the movie, and the appeal of Hong Kong’s kung fu cinema industry at the time.
The story plays fast and loose with revered Chinese heroes Wong Fei Hung, his father Wong Kei Ying, and Beggar So in a way that others perhaps would not. Of course, all of the events that take place show these characters in a positive light so as not to offend Chinese viewers. In the end, films like this only helped to raise their profile with younger audiences.
Following the immense popularity of this film with both audiences and reviewers, Zui Quan moved into the spotlight for a short period of time. A number of spin off films and other titles utilizing this fighting method appeared in short succession, leading to a cult following of sorts, albeit under the misguided impression that its practitioners were required to be drunk to excel in the style. This would have no doubt resulted in some confusion – and disappointment – in kung fu classes for some new students. The style itself is actually used throughout various classical martial arts as previously mentioned, with both Jet Li and Donnie Yen having utilized it in their own movies. Nowadays seen as a novelty in mainstream culture, it is more likely to be reserved for serious martial artists who are fully aware of its true abilities.
Recognized for his amusing Hollywood fight routines as much as for his work as a director and martial artist in Hong Kong, Jackie Chan’s trademark is impressive choreography hung over a loose, workmanlike plot that gives him free hand to incorporate comic elements and while not pushing his acting abilities. In recent years he has branched out with the likes of “The Shinjuku Incident,” where he doesn’t throw a single flying kick. Yet Drunken Master is a perfect reminder of why he became respected as the master of slapstick, comedic fighting.
About the Author: Rob Argent is a freelance writer with a degree in English language and literature. He has previously trained in Karate, Kickboxing and Muay Thai and he is currently studying Taiji Quan. He lives in Birmingham, England with his two pet fish.