[31 May 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
To the typical narrow-minded Westerner, martial arts mean one thing and one thing only - lots of mindless violence choreographed in a sensationally surreal manner. We want to see butts kicked, heads roll, and any other variation on said slam bang theme. Some understand the philosophy behind the fisticuffs, recognizing the second half of the nomenclature categorization for the supreme mental and physical skill it is. Others just want to see stuff hurt. In their latest releases as part of the exceptional Dragon Dynasty Collection, Genius Products and the Weinstein Company dig deep into the seminal Shaw Brothers vaults to bring out two terrific titles. One will satisfy the audience’s bloodlust. The other will provide a more pragmatic, respectable approach.
On the honor side of the issue rests Heroes of the East (1979). A wonderful starring vehicle for Gordon Liu, the famed 36th Chamber of the Shaolin icon, this fast paced free for all is actually two very distinct films in one. The first follows Ah To, our immature lead, as he faces an arranged marriage. After seeing that Kung Zi, his soon to be wife is not the Japanese kid “with the runny nose” that he used to know, he leaps into the wedding with wide-eyed optimism. The minute he learns his spouse is a seasoned martial artist, practicing several differing styles, their relationship starts to deteriorate. Eventually, their battles send Kung Zi back to Japan, and into the arms of her former teacher. Demanding a challenge, the greatest fighters of the island nation head to China. There, they prepare to take on Ah To to prove, once and for all, whose kung fu is the best.
This makes for a very unusual experience. On the one hand, the war between Ah To and Kung Zi is like a battle of the sexes set inside a weird proto-wuxia world. Clearly meant as a comment on the paternalistic nature of society and the pig-headed way men treat women, Kung Zi’s strength doesn’t lie in her skill set - it comes from her determination. She refuses to back down, even when propriety and social status would suggest otherwise. That this turns into a life or death struggle between her teachers and her husband reflects the importance of respect and tradition within Asia. The only reason Ah To confronts his wife is to command the tribute he thinks he deserves. The only reason Kung Zi allows her instructors to stand for her is that, as an insulted spouse, she requires defending. This leads to the second half of the film, a fascinating overview of various martial arts styles.
Director Lau Kar-leung, who helmed 36th Chamber, has a spectacular way with action. His editing only intensifies the already intricate choreography, and he manages to build drama and suspense within every carefully controlled composition. The differing aspects of each fight - two are merely brute force beat downs combined with wits while the rest involve differing instruments/weapons of destruction - means that the premise never grows tired. We even get a side sequence where Ah To visits a local drunken master (Kar-leung in a classic cameo) to get a handle on this more restrained talent. Naturally, the last contest between our hero and noted ninjitsu Takeno (a wonderfully intense Yasuaki Kurata) is epic, taking place in the lush Hong Kong countryside and making use of everything from jagged cliffs to local streams.
Purists, who believe martial arts are marginalized by the reliance on blood and vengeance, will adore Heroes of the East. It allows for the exquisite sanctity of each craft to be preserved while awarding the viewer with brilliant balletic action. To this end, Dragon Dynasty’s new DVD release should really satisfy said fanbase. The image offered is excellent, colorful and clean while preserving that famous “Shaw Scope” aspect ratio. Similarly, the label’s main Hong Kong cinema expert, Bey Logan, is back with another insightful and detailed commentary. Add in a tribute to Kar-leung, an interview with the always interesting Gordon Liu, and a breakdown of the differences between Japanese and Chinese fighting styles, and you have a wonderful set of supplements to an equally engaging film.
Come Drink With Me (1966), on the other hand, returns us to the classic criminals and wanton warlords of the genre’s best - and bloodiest - efforts. After a particularly gruesome ambush, the son of the local governor is kidnapped by a band of ruthless thugs. They want to work out a trade - their equally vile leader for this royal relative…and they won’t take “No” for an answer. Instead of talks, the mercenary Golden Swallow (a luminous Cheng Pei-Pei) shows up to negotiate a release. But these criminals are in no mood to bargain. Instead, they threaten our heroine. With the help of local goofball Drunken Cat, she learns the vulnerabilities of the clan, and strategizes a way to break into their temple hideout and free the captive.
Drenched in ample arterial spray and stylized to the point of poetry, Come Drink with Me is often pointed to as the inspiration for Ang Lee’s contemporary classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While many of the stunt setpieces are the same - a rooftop chase, a barroom brawl, the use of certain weaponry - this 1966 showcase is far more grounded. We aren’t dealing with myths and legends here. Instead, celebrated director King Hu keeps us firmly set within the fertile feudal terrain of lawlessness and frontier justice. Golden Swallow is really nothing more than your standard Clint Eastwood knock-off, a lone vigilante working out her own form of judge, jury, and executioner amongst the populace of China’s countryside. She may be able to fly like an eagle, but she’s all human…and all killer.
No, where the film finds its flights of fancy is in the character of Drunken Cat. Played with expert aplomb by Yueh Huo, he’s the kind of teacher who sits by a waterfall and forces the current to curve with only the power of his own will. He sings songs with lyrics that just so happen to be the directions to the bad guy’s hide out. He’s labeled a renegade and rogue, but his actions have the justification of right vs. wrong, honor vs. greed and disobedience. Every time he is onscreen, Drunken Cat leaves the viewer exhausted. He is conniving and convincing, wooing the ladies, swigging down wine, and working with abandoned orphans. He may sound too good to be true, and indeed, director Hu seems to steal some of Swallow’s story to give this amazing messianic figure more screen time. Along with the geisha faced villain in the piece, who seems lifted out of a much more contemporary film, Come Drink with Me is as much of its time as it is timeless.
For this DVD version, Dragon Dynasty continues with its perfected preservationist bent. Shaw Scope is once again expertly handled, and the digital packaging provides a wealth of extras. Most exciting is the chance to hear Cheng Pei-Pei reflect on this film. She is present for both the commentary with Logan and a solo interview. Both features are fabulous. So is the Yeuh Ho Q&A. He goes into great detail about his training, his interpretation of the character, and where the drunken master comes from in martial arts lore. As with all the releases by this label, the end result is something very special indeed. It’s the kind of contextual complement that really aids in our appreciation of these genre classics.
Of course, both films will still cause quite a conundrum among the typically bifurcated fanbase of the Hong Kong action film. On the one hand, Heroes of the East is pure skill, nothing but create kung fu executed by seminal big screen masters. Come Drink with Me, however, has vile hoodlums hacking away at little children, torrents of blood gushing up into their face as they destroy another life. One movie celebrates the discipline within the practice. The other centers squarely on death. If you can handle both dynamics, you are in for a very rare treat indeed. As with many of the movies featured by Dragon Dynasty, and the work of the Shaws, Heroes of the East/Come Drink with Me is a potent, masterful combination.