Monday, February 25, 2013

Film #95: Legend of Drunken Master (1994)

Original Chinese Title: Jui kuen II

Directors: Chia-Liang Liu, Jackie Chan

Original Release Country: Hong Kong (China)

Times Previously Seen: once (about 14 years ago)

Kung-fu Quick Summary:

China, approximately the 1930s or 1940s. Young man Wong Fei-hung (Jackie Chan) is returning by train with his father from a business trip. His father is a respected herbalist, and they have been on a buying expedition. The impetuous Fei-hung gets caught up in trying to smuggle some ginseng onto the train, to avoid paying a tax, and his plant gets swapped with an antique stone. After a few fights and further confusion, Fei-hung, his father, and their assistant arrive home safely.

After arriving back at his father’s shop, Fei-hung and his clownish step-mother cover up their father’s missing ginseng through various tricks. Amidst all of this, Fei-hung gets caught up in a street fight in which he utilizes his “drunken boxing” style – a form of kung-fu that is virtually unbeatable but requires the practitioner to consume ever-increasing amounts of alcohol. For this reason, Fei-hung’s father forbids it.

Fei-hung, getting loaded in the middle of just one of many ass-whippings that he delivers in the movie. Sure, the idea of alcohol-fueled martial arts invincibility is ridiculous. But it's fun.

Fei-hung and his family are eventually visited by Master Fu Wen-Chi, China’s top counter-intelligence officer, and a man whom Fei-hung had fought during the train ride that set all of his trouble in motion. Wen-Chi explains that the antique stone that Fei-hung had found is one of an entire hoard of Chinese historical treasures that are being stolen and smuggled out of China by a corrupt British diplomat and his regional Chinese cronies.

With the help of miners abused by the diplomat’s henchman and Master Fu Wen-Chi, Fei-hung leads an assault on the thieves headquarters – the mines from which they are excavating and stealing the national treasures. Fei-hung fights his way through a gauntlet of ever-more skilled adversaries and, by embracing his drunken boxing skills, defeats them all. The treasures are returned to their rightful owners, the Chinese people, and the fiendish British diplomat is banished.

My Gut Reaction to the Film (Done after this most recent re-viewing)

I assume that this film was put on the “All-TIME 100 list” because it is considered the absolute pinnacle of what kung-fu movies can offer.

If this is the case, then I can now say that kung-fu is simply not a genre that holds my attention.

In an odd way, my feelings towards the kung-fu genre are similar to the way I feel about the musical or even dance film genres. I can appreciate the planning, skills, and execution that they all require, and I can even marvel at these things for a while. Eventually, though, I’m always left wanting more narrative and emotional substance. Legend of Drunken Master is no exception.

Whether you're a fan of martial arts flicks or not, you have to marvel, even if only for a few moments, at the physical skill exhibited throughout the movie.

Story-wise, you have a nationalistic tale that is threadbare and so simple that it almost insults your intelligence. While the thievery of Chinese treasures of antiquity has been and is a real problem, this film’s treatment of it makes it clear that it is only meant to imbue the goofy Fei-hung with some sort of heroic purpose. I guess even Hong Kong kung-fu movies need their McGuffin.

In reality, the nefarious thievery acts more like whatever throw-away premise would get used in a W.C. Fields movie – it’s simply something that serves as an excuse for the star to do what he is best known for. In Fields’ case, it was begin a drunken, wise-cracking buffoon. In Jackie Chan’s case, it is being a lightning-quick contortionist/martial artist who dispatches hordes of enemies. The reason is completely inconsequential, so long as the star gets to do his thing. This keeps things rather simple, which can be both good and bad.

Interestingly, this film’s connections to the movies of long ago do not lie in its simplistic plot alone. One can easily see a very heavy dose of silent-film era shenanigans in Legend of Drunken Master. Between Chan and his step-mother, played by Anita Mui, the goofy slapstick is never very far. Chan himself often channels the great Buster Keaton, as far as pulling off effortless acrobatic and gymnastic moves, even when doing what would otherwise be routine movements. At times, I was also reminded of a quote I once heard about Fred Astaire – that he was “always dancing,” even during non-dancing scenes. Chan doesn’t “always” dance through his scenes, but when he does, it is to excellent effect. However, I must say that the slapstick eventually became more sophomoric than amusing to me.

The thing that makes this movie stand out is, of course, the action sequences. Jackie Chan and co-director Chia-Liang Liu (also a long-time stuntman in Hong Kong martial arts flicks) concocted and executed some phenomenal sequences in this movie. The speed and precision of the movements create a ballet of violence that will mesmerize any viewer. At least, for a little while. This was my problem. Like the slapstick elements of the movie, what begins as magnetic eventually became tiresome to me. The latter half of the film, with Chan facing down dozens and dozens of generic thugs and henchman, had lost its luster. I realize that not everyone feels this way. There are plenty of kung-fu movie fans who live for this stuff, and those fans would surely love every minute of every fight scene in this movie. I, however, grew weary of them.

One other gripe I have regarding the action sequences is their authenticity. One legitimate claim to fame that Chan has always had is that he and everyone in his movies perform all of their own stunts. However, in Legend of Drunken Master, it is quite clear that suspension wires are used during several of the fights and stunts. This is a bit disappointing since part of the intrigue of these movies is seeing just how far the stuntmen and women can push the limits of the human body, in terms of agility, flexibility, and coordination. Some of this wonder is diminished, though, when I can tell that they are “cheating” somewhat by using tools that any old “action” star could use. It would be like seeing Swan Lake when you know that the ballerina is using support wires. Not nearly as impressive.

One of the most obvious of several scenes that used wires to hold the actors up, allowing them to preform stunts and moves that seemingly defied gravity. Rather cheap, in my view. 

So I’m pretty much done with kung-fu movies. Perhaps there are still some out there that show the depth and development that I’ve always found lacking in them. Unless I hear of an unusually thoughtful or meditative film like the previously reviewed classic, A Touch of Zen, or the much more recent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I’ll be staying away from this brand of film.

That’s a wrap. 95 shows down, 10 to go.

Coming Soon: Pulp Fiction (1994)

“Bring out the gimp.”

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.