Drunken Master (1978): The Very Best in Asian Action

Jackie Chan in Drunken Master

1978 Martial Arts Action Comedy Drunken Master

After the local success of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Seasonal Studios decided to follow it up with another kung fu comedy. The new film would use much of the same plot, director (Yuen Woo-Ping), actors, and of course Jackie Chan. The difference would be an irreverent look at the growing up of the legendary Wong Fei-Hunga famous herbalist, teacher, physician and kung fu practitioner of Hung Gar. This character has been portrayed in a plethora of films and would continue to be, though for many, this character is synonymous with Kwan Tak-Hing and the original series of around 80 films in which he portrayed him. According to Jackie, “…rather than show him as a heroic adult, we would explore what he was like as a young man before he grew into his legend – lazy, naive, ignorant, and rebellious.” This humanizing of a legend, immensely popular in Chinese culture, allowed people to relate to this story and it was a gigantic hit. It is one of my favorite kung fu comedies and, along with Fist of Fury (American title: The Chinese Connection), one of the most beloved of the Hong Kong kung fu films.

Jackie stars as Wong Fei-Hung, a troublesome teenager who cannot please his father, the venerable Wong Chi-Ying (played by the venerable Lam Kau, who seems more like his dad than Ti Lung in Drunken Master II), the master of the Po Chi Lam studio and clinic. He goofs off, picks on Dean Shek (in a very familiar role) and attacks his aunt. The fight scene where he takes on actress Linda Ling Ying (unknowingly his aunt at the time) is excellent because of her flexibility and martial arts skills. Too bad it is so short. But this confrontation and other misgivings eventually leads to Chi-Ying hiring Su Hua-Chi to train, a nomadic and curmudgeonly man who has been rumored to maim and destroy his students. Hua-Chi was played by Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, the director’s father, who was unfortunately nearing the end of his career though rising in local popularity. He brought a sadistic yet comedic touch to the role of the elder master of the drunken style.

Wong did not want to train under such a wicked man, so he ran away from home. Unfortunately, Su saved him from a massive beating after Jackie could not pay for the food he ate at a restaurant. Fei Hung later realized that the old beggar who saved him was the old man who was supposed to torture and school him in the martial arts. Wong did not like the initial training so he ran away after tricking Sifu Su into a water container. While trying to dry his clothes he ran into Thunderleg (the awesome Korean kicker Hwang Jang-Lee) who mercilessly beat him and made him crawl between his legs for being impertinent and not leaving his dingy area. This upset him, but what angered him the most (this seemed funny) was that he burnt his clothes. After being destroyed physically and emotionally he went back to Master Su to train some more.

Like many of the earlier kung fu films, Chan’s training sequences are awesome to behold. Jackie being in excellent shape and having masochistic tendencies brought on from his younger days under Yu Jim-Yuen, he would be tortured by Sifu Su by being his puppet, doing upside down sit-ups while bringing small water cups from barrels below to barrels above and a variety of evil exercises to get him into excellent shape. Though kung fu columnist Ric Meyers has stated that the training scenes and other scenes from this film (especially the beginning fight scene between Thunderleg and Chen Kuo-Wei) were originally a lot longer and that the original print has possibly been lost, several critics think he is confused by similar scenes in Snake in Eagle’s Shadow.

All of this training was so Wong Fei-Hung could learn the secret of the Eight Drunken Gods: The God Lu – the drunkard with internal strength. The God Li – a drunken cripple with a powerful right leg. The God Fat Han – a drunkard holding a pot in his hands. The God Lan – a drunk with a deadly waist attack. The God Chang – the drunk with the swift double kick. The God Tso – he has a powerful throat lock. The God Han – a drunken flute player with powerful wrists. And, the God Miss Ho – a drunken woman flaunting her body. Wong learnt all of these fluently, while being inebriated–along with the snake and crane forms he already knew–except the Miss Ho forms, which he felt were sissy, though in later films Jackie would have no problems fighting as a woman –Young Master.

All of the training, scenery and Cantonese comedy is fun to watch, but the main reason most people love this film is because of the awesomely choreographed and directed martial art scenes. The highlight is the sublime showdown with Thunderleg. It is Chan’s Drunken style versus Hwang’s Tae Kwon Do (Jackie calls this his fourth favorite fight scene in I Am Jackie Chan.) Hwang’s use of the “Devil’s Kick” and the “Devil’s Shadowless Hands” is superb with his adroitness. I also like the fight scene with the Bamboo King (Hsu Hsia) and, well, just about all of them and there is a lot in this nonstop action film–and yes, I even like the scrap with Bolo lookalike Lee Chun-Wa.

This film was so successful that it helped ignite Jackie’s career (making him 50,000 HK dollars) and gave more recognition to Yuen Woo-Ping, whose contribution to this film is titanic. Drunken Master influenced many future HK films (of course Drunken Master’s plot was not original either) and helped HK get over its post-Bruce recession. This film also influenced directors such as Quentin Tarantino, who made his actors on Kill Bill watch scenes from this movie. It is also responsible for another great martial art film – its sequel. Though the irony is that this film was only initially seen in grindhouse theaters and occasionally mentioned in martial art magazines, it was not seen as much by western audiences until its sequel Legend of Drunken Master (Drunken Master II) came out to worldwide acclaim.

Shawn McKenna is obsessed with all things associated with movies and is an administrator of Criterionforums. When not making money as a software engineer, talking about movies at the gym or worried that his DVD/BD pile will one day collapse and suffocate him, he is actually watching movies.