Legend of Drunken Master

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Oct 26 12:20:37 MDT 2000

Now that Jackie Chan has become a major Hollywood star, it was almost
inevitable that some of his earlier great Hong Kong movies would be
released for commercial distribution in the United States. This includes
"Legend of Drunken Master," which was originally released as "Drunken
Master Part II." I saw this more than five years ago at a yearly festival
of Hong Kong movies in a dingy movie theater in Greenwich Village on a
postage-stamp sized screen. On the up side, the theater was packed with
Jackie Chan fans who cheered and laughed at most of the action and
gaffe-filled subtitles. Something like "I told you that my dragonfly
praying stance was unbeatable" might appear in the subtitles as, "Now with
the dragonfly you must now be beaten because of its stance of praying."
Whatever it lost in translation, it gained in hearing Jackie Chan's real
voice and the musical Chinese language.

So how would such a film be received by a non-aficionado audience in a
Loew's Multiplex in my neighborhood in the Upper East Side? First of all, I
must say whatever power the film lost by being dubbed, it more than made up
for by being shown on a full-sized screen, with a sound track heard on a
powerful modern sound system. At the five o'clock showing, the audience
seemed top-heavy with African-American women and their school-aged children
who were loving every minute of it, including the farcical moments pitting
the hero Wong Fei-Hung (Jackie Chan) against his tyrannical father Master
Wong (Ti Lung).

In these scenes, which mostly consist of the father demanding that the son
eschew the drunken boxing style since it can easily get out of hand and
lead to outright alcoholism, Fei-Hung's stepmother (Anita Mui) jumps in on
the son's behalf. In fact at one key fight between Chan and a band of
assassins, his mother throws him bottles of booze one after another to put
him in a fighting mood. When Fei-Hong downs a jug of rice wine in one gulp
during the fight's climax, she reassures worried onlookers, "Don't worry,
it gives him power."

As an added bonus, this film includes powerful anti-imperialist
themes--much more so than the average Hong Kong film and on a par with the
great "Once Upon a Time in China" series directed by Tsui Hark.

Wong Fei-Hung is drawn into a struggle to prevent Chinese works of art from
being smuggled to England. The perpetrators operate out of two bases, the
English Embassy (!) and a steel mill run by Chinese henchmen of the
British. They plot to ship the treasures in boxes of steel rods made in the
factory. When workers object to forced overtime--part of the plot to get
the shipment ready on time--they rally around their leaders on the shop
floor who seem like Bolsheviks who have learned kung fu.

The climax of the film is a dizzying comical, acrobatic, near-balletic,
showdown between Wong Fei-Hung and his nemesis, a Chinese fighter who wears
natty western clothes(!). The NY Times excellent African-American film
reviewer Elvis Mitchell, late of NPR, accurately captures this scene:

"The climactic last battle, which takes place in a steel mill and, in
addition to the stunning fights, has Mr. Chan falling into a pile of hot
coals and later breathing fire, is breathtaking; it's as if the Gene Kelly
and Donald O'Connor of "Singin' in the Rain" had dared to take each other
on, and the physical dynamism is superb. (This sequence is better than
anything in "The Matrix" because there are no digital effects and Mr. Chan
is seen in almost every frame.) It is fitting that the punch-outs bring
dance numbers to mind, since Mr. Chan's wind-it-up version of drunken
boxing looks like a lethal version of the Cabbage Patch."

"Legend of Drunken Master" is now being show all across the United States.
Look for it in your local movie theaters.

Louis Proyect
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