Jackie Chan fans won’t need convincing to go see The Legend of Drunken Master. They would never miss an opportunity to see their favorite kung fu star on the big screen. So this review is aimed at the rest of you folks who haven’t yet given Chan a chance. If you somehow missed Shanghai Noon, Chan’s recent U.S. “breakthrough” film with Owen Wilson, check out this movie, one of his many terrific pre-breakthrough efforts.
The movie is based on the true story of Wong Fei-hung, a legendary martial artist. (Chan is not the first to film aspects of Wong Fei-hung’s life—there are over 200 Chinese and Hong Kong movies about him.) Wong Fei-hung was known as the “drunken master” because he practiced the art of “drunken boxing,” in which the fighter bobs and zigzags as though drunk to put his opponent off balance. In the movie, Wong (Jackie Chan) is learning the martial arts and Chinese medicine from his father, Wong Kei-ying (Ti Lung), who forbids him to practice drunken boxing. Because the art involves the use of alcohol to increase flexibility, reduce pain, and increase physical and mental powers, his father fears Wong may succumb to alcoholism.
The film begins with Wong and his father returning from a trip to purchase medicinal herbs. In an attempt to avoid paying taxes at the border, Wong accidentally mixes up his package of a rare ginseng root with another box. Wong’s ensuing efforts to hide the mix-up from his father and the police result in delightfully Jackie-Chanian comic fiascoes, such as the release of a panicky flock of fowl in the first-class dining car, a series of dives in and out of the windows of the train, and a precarious run on top of the moving train. Naturally, Wong inadvertently ends up with someone else’s package, which happens to contain an ancient jade seal stolen by an evil British ambassador, sought by a loyal Chinese solider (a cameo by director Lau Kar Leung), and—small world—desired by Wong’s own father. The rest of the movie has Wong cavorting and running about, still trying to conceal his error from his father, with the aid of his supportive, mah-jongg-obsessed stepmother (Anita Mui), while also thwarting the British ambassador’s endeavors to recover the seal.
Chan has enormous talent as an actor, a director, choreographer, martial artist, and comedian—if only he were a scriptwriter, he would have total control over every project. Critics have raved about the fighting sequences in this film, and they deserve the praise, but the content has been glossed over, presented as something to suffer through between action sequences, or belittled as incoherent compared to western plot and narrative standards. There are a few incongruities—Chan is simply too old to play the dependent son, and besides, his stepmother appears younger than he is (Mui is his real-life ex-girlfriend, and is in fact younger than he is); the movie ends abruptly; and, Chan is strangely absent from the last sequence. But these are minor problems. What makes this plot worthy of more discussion are its anti-imperialistic and pro-labor themes.
Chan’s movies usually feature a hyperbolically bad bad guys, and the primary villain of Drunken Master is no exception. However, the British ambassador’s evil deeds are not typical of Chan’s films. He isn’t involved in the drug trade or organized crime—a more typical villainous activity in Chan’s films—he is stealing Chinese cultural treasure for sale to British museums and exploiting the workers at a nearby steel factory—not to mention holding Chan hostage to force his father to sell his kung fu school. The daily noise coming from the school, it seems, is disturbing the ambassador’s peace and quiet. His attack on the school and his theft of the jade seal represent the ambassador’s lack of respect for the school’s long tradition and Chinese traditional practices in general. In response to this plundering of history and present-day laborers, Wong, who begins the film as a cut-up who threatens to destroy his father’s reputation as a healer and martial arts teacher, comes to the aid of the workers. As he enters the conflict between the owners and the workers, he strides onto the scene dressed in a long white robe, exuding a new calm and purpose, before he proceeds to kick some serious ass.
Though his antics are comic as ever, what makes this film stand out are the thrilling and frankly beautiful fight sequences. They are doubly pleasurable because there are no special effects, no digitization, no stunt doubles. It is “pure” Chan—acting as his own special effects laboratory. The final fight scene is perhaps the best, pitting Chan against the great Ken Lo Houi-Kang (playing one of the film’s villains), set a working steel mill. Twenty minutes long—it’s something of a tradition in martial arts movies to run long climactic fight scenes—it took over four months to film, due to the care taken to represent each mind-blowing acrobatic feat. For one instance, Wong is forced back into a burning bed of hot coals used to melt steel; he falls into the pit and must walk through it, emerging in flames on the other side. He is now firmly on the path of the real Wong Fei-hung, legendary as a champion of the poor and oppressed.
The release history of Drunken Master is, if not exactly legendary, famously confusing. Suffice it to say that the rights to Chan’s Chinese movies are now owned by a U.S. distributor, Dimension, who is releasing these older films with new names (even though some, such as The Legend of Drunken Master—previously known as Drunken Master II when it was first released in Asia in 1994 and briefly in the U.S. in 1995—have already been available on video.) This explains why Chan looks so young in this picture: he is young!