In the early days of Wong Fei-Hung (Jackie Chan) he was something of an upstart, in spite of having a strict father (Lam Kau) who ran his own martial arts school and you would have expected to keep his unruly son in line. For instance, when Wong and the other students were being taught various techniques that were renowned as among the finest in the land, he would persistently act up, making fun of and playing pranks on the tutor, culminating in taking him on in hand to hand combat simply to prove he knew far more about kung fu than anyone else who cared to teach him. He was a prankster outside the school walls as well, fooling around with the opposite sex to impress his buddies, but today this was about to turn around and bite him...
Well, not so much bite as beat up when he tries it on with a comely lass and her mother sees him off with better kung fu than Wong could manage, then to add insult to injury when he returns home they are there to greet him for he did not realise they were in fact his aunt and cousin - dad is not best pleased, and when a man Wong hospitalised for trying to cheat a poor jade seller out of the money he owes shows up with his entourage, it's time for yet another battle. This effectively marks out our hero's personality: mischievous, arrogant even, but with a sense of fair play and an innate talent for fighting, all aspects that can be built upon by the right tutor, should his father send him off to the legendary Beggar So (Yuen Siu Tin), which naturally is precisely what happens.
Drunken Master was the hit that consolidated Jackie Chan's newfound stardom after his first real success headlining a movie the previous year, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow. Which is best is a dispute that has never been resolved, but this particular movie showed Chan's willingness to try something different to keep his audiences interested, and while it was accurate to observe he was applied to a very traditional format of martial arts flick, his director and choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping was able to flex his muscles within those parameters and craft an entertainment that stood out from an extremely crowded field. This was as much a statement of intent for the future as it was part of a long Hong Kong legacy of action.
There's hardly two minutes that go by without Chan and some other performer kicking off, as if Yuen was worried about the audience losing interest in a story that stuck to a traditional framework, being that of the teacher and student combining forces to better a foe who threatens not only them but others who need protecting as well. You knew what that meant if you had seen any kung fu from the nineteen-seventies that had a historical setting as this did, which was the initial messing about to establish the protagonist needs a firm hand, then the training sequences to whip him into shape, and finally the grand finale where he would fight in a showdown with some seemingly unbeatable enemy, and that was more or less what was on offer here, except with more comedy than its peers might perhaps include.
Not that comedy in kung fu was an alien concept before Chan happened along, but he made this combination of humour and stylish violence his forte, so much so that he could legitimately claim to have revolutionised the genre: just compare it from before Chan came to prominence and afterwards, and he could be argued to have kicked off a new wave on his own. Of course, he was hardly alone in the revolution Hong Kong cinema underwent in the eighties, but he was its highest profile exponent, the poster boy across the globe for what was possible from this relatively small industry. Here the jokes were predictably broad, but they did prompt laughter, and his interplay with his director's father curiously mirrored what he was learning from his co-star's son, with such sequences as Wong's first encounter with the big baddie (Hwang Jang Lee) gripping since they made it clear Wong was good at kung fu, but not as good as his opponent. When the alcohol-fuelled style is apparent in the second half, Chan's athleticism was all too obvious, and the shapes he pulled his body into set him apart from the average Hong Kong star. The best was yet to come, but Drunken Master was an essential step. Music by Chou Fu Liang.
[Those features on Eureka's collector's item Blu-ray in full:
Definitive transfer from 4K digital restoration
The original complete Cantonese soundtrack, rarely heard on home video
Alternate English and Mandarin audio options
Newly translated English subtitles (which feature the line, "Hey - why are you so sexy?")
Audio commentary by Hong Kong film experts Ric Meyers and Jeff Yang
Video interview with Jackie Chan
New video interview with film scholar Tony Rayns
New video appreciation by director Gareth Evans (The Raid film series)
PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by Michael Brooke and archival imagery.]
Chinese director whose skill at staging electrifying martial arts has made him one of the most sought after fight choreographers in the world. Woo-ping made his directing debut in 1978 with the Jackie Chan vehicle Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, following it the same year with Chan's hugely popular Drunken Master. His brand of fast-moving martial arts direction was a breath of fresh air compared to the more staid style of many of his peers and until the mid-90s turned in pretty much a film every year, sometimes two or three, including Tiger Cage, Jet Li's Tai-Chi Master and Iron Monkey.
Although overshadowed by later kung fu comedies with better stories, this still ranks among the most important and influential HK movies ever made. And for sheer entertainment, not to mention showcasing Jackie in his prime, it still holds up. For an HK audience Jackie's portrayal of an impish, bumbling Wong Fei Hung was such a stark departure from the stern-faced stoicism of Kwan Tak-Hing.