Drunken Master (1978)

drunkenmaster_2Drunken Master [醉拳] (1978)
AKA Drunken Monkey in the Tiger’s Eyes, Drunk Monkey

Starring Jackie Chan, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, Hwang Jang-Lee, Lam Kau, Linda Lin Ying, Dean Shek Tin, Chiang Kam, Max Lee Chiu-Jun, Yuen Shun-Yi, Fung Ging-Man, Tino Wong Cheung, San Kuai, Hsu Hsia

Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping

Expectations: High.

fourstar


To set the scene: Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Jackie Chan’s first big hit, was released in March of 1978 and sent a shock wave through the Hong Kong martial arts film world. It became one of the most successful Hong Kong films of all time, out-grossing even the mega-popular Bruce Lee films. A mere seven months later came Drunken Master, the second of Jackie’s collaborations with director/choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, and it did 2½ times as much as Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow did at the Hong Kong box office. Boom! Not only was Drunken Master a mega-hit, it solidified Jackie Chan as a major player in Hong Kong film, it made drunken-style kung fu “a thing” in movies, and it further expanded the kung fu comedy genre that Yuen and Jackie had officially kicked off with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. Drunken Master is one of the hallmarks of ’70s kung fu cinema, and with good reason. It’s amazing.

The one aspect that’s lacking in Drunken Master is the story, but it is a testament to the strength of every other aspect that even though this flaw is very noticeable, it never detracts from the experience. In many ways, it’s kind of a re-hash of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, starting with a mountaintop fight scene where Hwang Jang-Lee takes on a fighter and mercilessly kills him with his amazing leg work. But instead of being a negative point, the re-hash is actually more of a distillation. Drunken Master takes everything that worked perfectly in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and perfects it even more, leaving out all the rest. Which, honestly, is that film’s relatively average kung fu revenge plot. “Who needs it?” they must have said, and I agree.

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The Flying Dagger (1969)

The Flying Dagger [飛刀手] (1969)

Starring Cheng Pei Pei, Lo Lieh, Yeung Chi Hing, Cheng Lui, Shum Lo, Cheng Miu, Wu Ma, Lam Kau, Chui Chung-Hok, Ku Feng, Yau Ming, Lau Gong, Cliff Lok Kam Tung, Yau Lung

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Moderate. Chang Cheh, but I’ve never really heard of this one.


Before I get into the review proper, let me just say this: I loved The Flying Dagger. It’s not as good as Chang Cheh’s best stuff, but it’s a lot of fun and well worth your time. In Chang Cheh’s memoir he mentions filming this concurrently with Golden Swallow, so for some unexplained reason The Flying Dagger‘s release was held back until after Chang had filmed and released The Singing Thief & Return of the One-Armed Swordsman. Who’s to say what went down, but at this point it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is Lo Lieh, and the ridiculous amount of badass he exudes in this film.

The Flying Dagger opens with a beautifully shot black and white intro sequence (which is somewhat reminiscent of Onibaba with all the tall grass), where a young couple are assaulted by a rogue bandit. He kills the man and then rapes and kills the girl, but before he can cleanly make his escape Cheng Pei Pei shows up and annihilates him. What she didn’t know when she killed him was that he was the son of noted evil clan leader Jiao Lei (Yueng Chi Hung), also known as the Flying Dagger because of his amazing prowess with throwing knives. Jiao makes it his personal vendetta to completely wipe out Cheng Pei Pei’s family to avenge his son’s death, because y’know… he’s just evil like that. Along the way, anti-hero Yang Qing (Lo Lieh) gets mixed up in the middle of the two factions, and it’s in his character that the film truly shines.

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Twin Blades of Doom (1969)

Twin Blades of Doom [陰陽刀] (1969)

Starring Ling Yun, Ching Li, Chen Hung Lieh, Yau Ching, Cheng Lui, Gai Yuen, Cheng Miu, Lam Kau, Fang Mian, Hao Li-Jen, Lau Gong, Hung Lau, Lee Ho

Directed by Doe Ching

Expectations: Moderately high. The name sounds fun.


Just like Smuckers, with a name like Twin Blades of Doom, it has to be good, right? Unfortunately not, as this is one of the most disjointed, boring Shaw Brothers films I’ve seen in a while. It’s not for lack of trying, the film exhibits lots of potential for greatness throughout, but at every turn the filmmakers choose to go in exactly the opposite direction. A lot of what’s wrong with this film can be traced back to its director, one Doe Ching.

Doe was a very successful, award-winning director during the 50s and 60s, specializing in melodrama, comedies and musicals. By the time Twin Blades of Doom was made, those genres had all faded in popularity and the focus of the Shaw Brothers had shifted primarily to the wuxia pian genre of swordplay, revenge and martial struggles. Doe Ching was pressured into making a martial arts film by the Shaws and the result is Twin Blades of Doom. You never want to resign yourself into making a film without any passion behind it, so the lackluster results are understandable. On top of all that, Doe Ching was very ill with stomach cancer and actually had to leave the shoot mid-way through. The film was finished up by Griffin Yueh Feng (a very competent martial arts director), but even he couldn’t salvage the film. If all that wasn’t enough of a downer, Doe Ching died only four months after this film was released, making Twin Blades of Doom his final work.

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The Bells of Death (1968)

The Bells of Death [奪魂鈴] (1968)

Starring Chang Yi, Chin Ping, Chiu Sam-Yin, Lam Kau, Tin Sam, Ku Feng, Yeung Chi Hing, Lee Wan Chung, Wu Ma, Hung Lau, Nam Wai-Lit, Shum Lo

Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng

Expectations: High. I’m becoming a big fan of Griffin Yueh Feng.


It’s films like The Bells of Death that keep me at this ambitious and lengthy chronological journey through the catalog of Shaw Brothers films. Before starting, the name Griffin Yueh Feng meant nothing to me but after seeing two of his films I learned to expect great visuals and some exciting filmmaking. In Chang Cheh’s memoir he mentions Yueh as helping to raise the standards of the Chinese film industry with his 1949 films A Forgotten Woman & Blood Will Tell. Good luck seeing either of those so I’ll have to take Chang’s word for it, but from the evidence on display in the films I have seen, it makes perfect sense. The Bells of Death is not only the best Griffin Yueh Feng film I’ve seen yet, it’s also the only film I’ve reviewed in this series that strongly gives Chang Cheh’s films of the era a run for their money.

The story in The Bells of Death is a pretty standard revenge tale, but it’s told so well and with such flair that it’s easy to forgive its familiarity. And really, is a good revenge tale a fault? I don’t think so. The film opens with three ruthless bandits slaughtering a country family and taking the eldest daughter with them for their pleasures. What they didn’t know is that the woodcutter they passed on the way to the house was the eldest brother of the family and when he returns home, he finds the carnage they left. This begins his quest for revenge and oh boy is it a good one.

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