Drunken Master (1978)

Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping

“You’re supposed to be a teacher, you’d break a gorilla in half!”

The Disc

Not a terrible haul, with galleries, biographies, filmographies, along with an interview, a deleted scene and a ‘kicking showcase’ – not something you see every day.

Why Did I Get This?

Pretty sure I asked for this one as a birthday present, at a point in my early twenties where I was trying to watch more international cinema and leaned towards stuff I thought could be fun – so what better place to begin than with the inimitable Jackie Chan?

Honestly though, despite going in with the best intentions, I don’t think I’ve ever made it through the whole movie – from what I recall, I think the goofiness of the performances between the action might have been a factor, but it’s apparently one of the star’s favourites from his own career, so definitely time to give it another spin.

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will include spoilers from the film. If you’d like to avoid them, scroll straight down to the next heading!

First thing’s first, I know nothing about Kung Fu, next to nothing about martial arts in general, and only a tiny bit about this particular genre of film, so if it’s searing insight into those aspects of Drunken Master that you’re after, I’m afraid you’re likely to be disappointed.

What I do like is a cool pre-titles sequence, which Drunken Master has – a fella named Charlie Wei, Champion Of The Four Door Fists, is rehearsing his Kung Fu on a hilltop while a villain named Thunderfoot (Hwang Jang-lee) receives an order to kill him. The pair then have a great, high-kicking fight under the opening credits, and Charlie gets his arse kicked, introducing Thunderfoot as a force to be reckoned with.

I should note at this point that I was watching the subtitled version on the disc rather than the dubbed version – as much fun as that can be from time to time, I figured I’d go with the original language and try to keep up with the subs.

What I realised while prepping for this Late Review was that the translations changed the names of characters though, so Thunderfoot (the high-kicking assassin), is known in some versions as Thunderleg and Yim Tit-sam, while Jackie Chan’s character is referred to in this version as Freddie Wong, but in other versions as Wong Fei-hung.

For ease, I’m going to use the names as they appear in the subtitles on this disc, hopefully that’ll all make sense.

Okay, so, credits over we meet Freddie Wong (Jackie Chan), goofing around with his mates in Kung Fu class while making an ass of the teaching assistant Professor Kai-Hsin (Dean Shek), who has a really elaborate and unpleasant hairy mole on his face which genuinely made me feel ill.

Freddie’s father runs the school and is a respected pillar of the community, so from the outset we see Freddie as a bit of a rebel, bit of a card, showing off and being silly to entertain his mates, in direct contrast to his stern father. His opening scene sees him indulge in a bit of daft choreography to equal Laurel & Hardy or The Three Stooges, as he plays keep-away with the teacher’s hat, knocks him on his arse a few times, and generally acts like a bit of a dick in front of his mates.

It’s a fun scene, and we’re quickly out to Freddie and his mates eating lunch in the marketplace and, again, acting like jackasses, drooling over a girl who Freddie tricks into kissing and hugging him. As he does so, her mother notices what’s happening and challenges him to a fight which, being young, dumb and full of… bravado, he accepts, before having the snot kicked out of him by the older woman.

To restore his reputation, in a different corner of the market, he comes to the aid of an old man who has had his only belonging – a piece of rare jade – smashed by a heartless, boo-hiss baddie and his flunky. Here, we have a three-stage fight with hands, then feet then swords – all the while accompanied by Chan shouting at his opponent that he’ll chop and slice him like vegetables, but not actually inflicting any visible damage.

That’s an important note for this film – despite people getting punched and kicked repeatedly, with sound effects suggesting these blows hit as hard as a sledgehammer, there’s rarely if ever any visible wounding. I think I counted one or two massive purple bruises following a particularly brutal kick to the face from Thunderfoot, and maybe a small trickle of blood during one of the less-comic fights, but usually the actual damage is shown by mewling cries of the victims, followed by them being presented to their masters or friends while wrapped in huge amounts of bright white bandages, like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man.

This happens for the first time a few moments after Freddie returns home to discover the woman and girl from the market speaking to his dad – turns out, the older lady is his aunt and he’d basically tried to molest his cousin. Naturally, everyone’s furious, and Freddie’s dad prepares to give him a kicking (despite his sister advising it “sounds bad for a teacher of your standing to flog his son to death”), when a team of villains carry in a bundle of bandages wrapped round the fella from the market fight, and demand satisfaction.

There follows a big fight between Freddie and one of the villains, in which he’s been instructed not to strike back, and the pair show off some really incredible Snake and Panther styles of Kung Fu. The best-looking fight so far, it moves from stagey, dance-style choreography to occasional handheld camerawork that looks far more brutal, and feels part exhibition and part vicious brawl, albeit one with big, daft sound effects.

Following the fight, Freddie is ordered to stand for five hours in the ‘horse stance’, balancing bowls of water on his thighs and shoulders and hovering his backside over a wooden spike while the hairy-moled teaching assistant watches. After an unknown period of time in this stress position, Freddie’s mate slides a wooden bench under him, which is discovered by his dad, who tells Freddie he’ll be sent to train with Beggar So – “a real sadist, a torturer” – to learn some discipline and basically stop being a dick.

Naturally, Freddie runs away from home and into a restaurant where he sits with a wealthy-looking diner and orders a phenomenal amount of food despite having no money. While engaging the rich guy in frantic chatter and shovelling course after course into his face, he sits back, sated, and loosens his belt as if to show he’s completely stuffed.

This would have been easier to believe if he didn’t still have an incredible six-pack, so is accompanied by Jackie Chan outright stating how full he is.

When the restaurant staff realise he’s got no money, they point to a sign on the wall that says “PAY OR DIE” and bring in a tall guy called Gorilla to instigate the brawl, before punching the food and drink straight out of Chan’s stomach, before the fight is disrupted by an elderly man with bad teeth who takes on the entire staff using little more than a rag and a pair of chopsticks.

Obviously, this is Beggar So (Yuen Siu-Tin), the Drunken Master himself – except while it’s obvious enough to us, Freddie doesn’t understand. Instead, after fleeing the scene and bumping into the old man again, he describes Beggar So to the old man before realising who he’s speaking to, and getting his arse handed to him again while giving MASSIVE facial reactions as the old man teaches him a lesson.

Imagine if, after landing on Dagobah, Luke Skywalker had told the little green frog guy how much of a dick he’d heard Master Yoda was, then Yoda then kicked the shit out of him. This is basically that, except Yoda’s drunk and Luke’s a champion gurner.

From here, we’re treated to a series of training montages, each of which seems to involve Jackie Chan being tied up or bound to sticks while shirtless, and moving water between receptacles of differing sizes, or being pulled around like a man-sized marionette by Begger So, with little clarity as to the exact purpose of the training method and much complaining and whining by Freddie.

As someone who grew up watching The Karate Kid though, it’s pretty obvious that although they seem to have little to do with Kung Fu, these tricks will all solidify into some pretty badass martial arts techniques later on in the movie, of course.

But Freddie doesn’t have the patience for that, so runs away from Beggar So and finds himself inadvertently winding up Thunderfoot and getting into a brilliantly choreographed fight based largely around a chair – on it, over it, around it, under it, all really inventively done, and ending with Chan getting a bit of a kicking and thrown onto the ground with no crash mat in sight.

After losing the fight with Thunderfoot, Freddie decides to run back to Beggar So, but not before sitting in a dirt track and reminiscing with a solid two minutes of flashbacks to the fight we’ve literally just watched. Weird choice, but fair enough.

Back at Beggar So’s shack, Freddie tries to make amends for running away by offering him wine and drying his cloak, and in turn is treated to a load more training montages while trussed up like a bolloxed puppet, before they decide to visit the market for a game of Find The Lady and yet another fight, this time with someone called Iron Head which, again, is spectacularly choreographed but feels like more like a dance than a fight. Still, it contained a genuine laugh out loud moment when Freddie traps the villain in a pair of blue silk pants… it works better visually than in text, I promise.

Following this, Freddie’s sent to buy more wine and Beggar So is confronted by yet another pair of baddies at his shack, but because he’s got no booze, he suffers his first defeat, even as Freddie returns and tries to help, so the pair have scarper after a really great fight with the King Of Sticks.

Battered, but not visibly bruised, the lads return to the shack later and Beggar So begins drinking while sharing the Secret of the Eight Drunken Gods with him – a special kind of Kung Fu which makes you look like you’ve been on an all-day session to lure your opponent into a false sense of security, before whipping, rattlesnake-like into a fighting stance and knocking them on their arse.

“Don’t be fooled by my staggering, there’s power inside to kill.”

Freddie is encouraged to drink while Beggar So talks him through the idea behind the technique, then we’re treated to yet another training montage introducing the methods of the different gods – and a goddess. Of course, Freddie being a spoiled, immature little berk, he doesn’t want to learn the goddess style because he thinks it’s “sissy”, but he seems to pick the rest up fairly quickly.

An indeterminate amount of time passes, and Freddie is sent to fetch more wine (again), and stumbles across the King Of Sticks preparing a funeral feast, so he does the only thing you’d expect, and challenges him to another fight to test out his new Kung Fu skills.

Honestly, funerals are sad and stressful enough without being challenged to a fight by a cocky little upstart who breaks wind in your face then pushes your head into a pile of dung. Still, it’s a decisive win for Freddie, who returns to the shack to discover his year of training is up, and Beggar So has left him to find his own way now.

Meanwhile, Freddie’s dad is lured to a hillside for a fight with Thunderfoot who has been hired to murder him for real estate reasons, and just about holds his own until Freddie turns up to give his newfound skills a real test. Beggar So shows up too, but just to watch and shout encouragement from the sidelines with Freddie’s dad as the young guy fights for his life.

“Hands are for door knobs and legs break down doors.”

Despite making this terrifying statement, and announcing he is 30% hands and 70% legs (a nightmarish ratio, should you try to draw him), Thunderfoot adopts a weird slappy-hand technique while Freddie uses all eight god styles (yes, even the goddess, which he does with a high-pitched voice), to win the battle.

Does he kill Thunderfoot? Honestly, I’ve got no idea. The last we see is the villain face down on the floor while the older men come in to congratulate Freddie, but let’s assume they’re saying ‘well done for murdering that man’, as the end credits roll.

Thoughts On The Film

Jackie Chan is a genuine, one-of-a-kind performer whose body of work and dedication to his craft cannot be denied. His athleticism in Drunken Master is as staggering as his acting performance is cartoony. That being said, he acts drunk better in the fights than he does in the actual drinking scenes.

The choreography is simply stunning, and director Yuen Woo-Ping went on to be martial arts choreographer for The Matrix films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill – all of which are lightyears ahead of Drunken Master, but it’s clear the basic elements are all in this film.

For me, this lacks the visual flair of a lot of western cinema from this era, and the Chinese landscapes look weirdly dull and flat despite having lush greenery and mountains. That might be down to the transfer, or more likely down to the focus being on the extraordinary martial artists instead of the scenery.

The annoyingly jolly and jaunty music which accompanies the training scenes and the fights was really reminiscent of something else though, and it wasn’t until about an hour or so into Drunken Master that I realised that with its episodic nature, good-natured clowning, use of music to indicate punchlines, gurning and lightness of tone, it reminded me less of a martial arts masterpiece and more of a Carry On film – Carry On Up The Kung Fu, if you will.

In fact, the more I think of it like that, the more I can’t decide whether it’s a good thing the Carry On franchise never took this leap. I’m not sure Sid James or Kenneth Williams shouting about unleashing their drunken snake style while titting about in silk pants would have been a good idea, but I guarantee it would still be talked about to this day if it had.

Verdict

A little visually flat and very episodic, but you’re not watching Drunken Master for a deep and meaningful experience.

As a way to spend 108 minutes and experience some genuinely staggering physical action and comedy, I’ve had worse times.

That being said, you get a really good feel for it from the trailer and I don’t know that I’ll be rushing to rewatch the full movie any time soon.

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