A Weird, Drunken Display of Awesome Talent (Part 2 of 2)
The animal-inspired lunacy of Jackie Chan’s first 1978 release was the opening volley in a cinematic one-two punch. In I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action, its author relates: “The idea we’d been working on would take the successful formula we’d begun with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and bring it to the next logical level. It would be faster. Looser. Funnier. And it would throw an even more hallowed tradition for a loop. One of the greatest legends in Chinese history is a hero named Wong Fei-Hung. He was a doctor and a warrior, a healer of the sick and a protector of the weak. He was one of the most powerful martial artists of his time….In fact, his story is at the very heart of the Cantonese cinema, because the first hit movies in Hong Kong history were a series of films about his life….What Yuen [director Woo-Ping Yuen] and I suggested was that we make a new film about Wong. However, 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, naïve, ignorant and rebellious.” Building upon Wong’s “drunken” kung-fu style of lore, Chan and his cohorts devised the Eight Drunken Gods martial-arts format, embellishing it with “wild acrobatics, street brawling, slapstick antics, comic mime, and even some real drama.” Sixty-five-year-old Simon Yuen returned, this time in the role of aged, tippling Master So, and the choreographic teamwork proved to be breathtakingly frantic, hilarious and an audience-pleasing sensation. In his essay What Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master Can Teach You About Fighting, Fightland blog essayist Jack Slack asserts: “Not only did Drunken Master (1978) offer one of the first truly successful examples of martial arts comedy, and introduce zui quan or drunken style kung fu (chuan fa, quan fa, Chinese boxing, whatever floats your boat) to the world, it was also a powerful advocate of that public school favorite, the towel whip. When Master So (being played by director Woo-Ping Yuen's father) is introduced, and finds himself outnumbered, he immediately breaks out the rag and gets to work.” With a demented blend of graceful, meticulously designed precision and counter-intuitive horseplay, the film’s many raucous scraps and confrontations build into a crescendo in the film’s final match-up between Wong (Chan) and Thunderleg (the formidable Jang Lee Hwang), in which Wong unleashes all of the Eight Immortals’ techniques on his opponent, even finally, those of the eighth Immortal, the feminine "Miss Ho," involving “brushing of the hair,” “rolling of the hips” and even, perhaps most perilously, turning your back to your rival. Slack comments: “Of course, showing your back in a fight is a fairly dangerous business. You're asking to be smacked in the back of the head or the kidney. In most combat sports, turning of the back is ruled a foul or worse, considered timidity, which is enough to merit a disqualification. That being said, against a truly superb technician, sometimes you need a touch of the weird.” More than weird, it was to prove wacky and wonderfully triumphant. “Drunken Master did what all of Chan's movies up to that point could not, they made him a star,” Slack concludes. “Off of this film Chan was given opportunities to star in numerous films and to choreograph his own fight scenes – resulting in some of the funniest scraps on film. The film is as silly as they come, but sometimes fighting is too.” For the hard-working, long-struggling Chan, the response was “bigger than any of us could possibly have expected.” The power-packing double-bill Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray of the newly remastered and subtitled Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, outfitted with Cantonese, Mandarin and English-dubbed audio, whirls into action June 13. Preorders open May 31.