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Drunken Master II (1994)

drunkenmaster2_12Drunken Master II [醉拳II] (1994)
AKA The Legend of Drunken Master

Starring Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Ti Lung, Felix Wong Yat-Wah, Lau Kar-Leung, Cheung Chi-Gwong, Ken Lo, Ho Sung-Pak, Hon Yee-Sang, Hoh Wing-Fong, Andy Lau, Bill Tung, Chin Ka-Lok

Directed by Lau Kar-Leung

Expectations: C’mon, it’s Drunken Master 2! I know it’s awesome!

I can confirm that love at first sight exists, because from the moment I first laid eyes on Drunken Master II, nearly 20 years ago, I was completely and utterly smitten. Time has changed many things in my life, but time has not diminished the power of Drunken Master II even a smidgen. It is every bit the amazing film it always was, and re-watching for the first time in many years brought back every enthusiastic feeling I ever had about the film. Heaven is indeed real, and it is watching Drunken Master II! Hyperbole aside, Drunken Master II is great and if you love martial arts films, I don’t think there’s any way for you not to love this one.

The film begins with Wong Kei-Ying (Ti Lung), his son Wong Fei-Hung (Jackie Chan) and their assistant Tso (Cheung Chi-Gwong) waiting to board a train home to Canton. Fei-Hung doesn’t think they should be forced to pay taxes on the ginseng root they are bringing back for a patient. Tso tells him that British consulate members don’t need to pay the duties, so when a group of them go past, Fei-Hung swaps the ginseng box with an identical box of theirs.

Retrieving the ginseng presents a problem, though. When Fei-Hung makes his way to the cargo car, he interrupts the mysterious Fu Wen-Chi (Lau Kar-Leung) stealing the ginseng box from the suitcase, thinking it was the one that Fei-Hung had swapped it with. The two fight, develop a mutual respect for one another, but Fei-Hung is unable to make the switch. It’s incredible that this one seemingly harmless, mischievous act of trying to avoid responsibility is the cause of the entire film’s plot, but it is, and this is also a clue as to what the film is all about.

Drunken Master II does not have much of a story in the traditional sense; it’s all plot dominoes falling as a result of Fei-Hung’s initial mischief. As the repercussions pile up, Fei-Hung first attempts to pass the blame and skirt the truth, aided by his mother (Anita Mui) who shares an equally mischievous spirit. This only gets him in deeper trouble, and in order to rectify this, he must learn the value of responsibility, to respect his elders, and to respect his heritage. So while the story may seem somewhat disjointed and minor, the film is actually densely packed with scenes that enhance and further this underlying character arc of Wong Fei-Hung. Even the memorable quote from later in the film, “Water floats but also capsizes boats,” is a reference to the film’s character-based storytelling.

As audience members, we can also learn similar lessons from the film. When I first saw Drunken Master II, it was my first experience with Ti Lung and Lau Kar-Leung. I had no idea who they were or their significance within the martial arts genre. I only knew the Shaw Brothers studio as a vague concept at that point, too. All I knew was that these two older actors were incredible, and like the film overall, I loved them instantly. These days, with tons of Shaw films under my belt and a supreme appreciation of how important both men were to the genre, the film takes on new meaning.

Drunken Master II plays like a grand tribute to the Shaw Studio and the films created there, and with Lau Kar-Leung at the helm it’s like he’s passing on the torch to Jackie as the inheritor of the legacy. I don’t think it’s a mistake that Ti Lung and Lau are both in positions to teach Jackie, with Lau’s character specifically instilling an appreciation of the artifacts of the past and an understanding of how they are fading away from the collective minds of the Chinese people. Hong Kong has never been known for their film preservation, and 1994 was well before the Shaw library was sold to Celestial and subsequently remastered to their original glory. So it would seem that film’s underlying intention was to remind people of the old Shaw greatness, or, like in my case, introduce them to something from before their time. The fact that the true, original version of Drunken Master II is virtually unavailable at this point in time, only strengthens the film’s point that we need to respect and preserve our film heritage, or else great treasures can easily be lost.

The film’s choreography is superb, top-shelf stuff, so I don’t need to lather it up with superlatives that everyone else in the past 22 years has used to describe the film. But in regards to the film being a tribute to the Shaw films, I also see Drunken Master II as the crowning achievement of the traditional kung fu film. The cinematic art form that evolved from the Shaw studio to Golden Harvest, as well as concurrently developing throughout Asia through the many great independent films of the era, culminates in Drunken Master II, with the man who is arguably the most important figure to that evolution, Lau Kar-Leung, right here in the thick of it.

What sullies this just a bit is that Jackie and Lau had a falling out during production. This resulted in Lau leaving the project with Andy Lau to make Drunken Master III, and Jackie directing the remainder of Drunken Master II himself. I can’t find any specific reference to what point this was in the film’s production, but I can say that the film’s finale really feels Jackie-influenced, while almost everything else is a bit more classically focused. I would’ve loved to see what Lau had in mind for the entire film, but I can’t argue that the end of this movie is anything short of head-exploding amazing. And besides, actually passing the directing to Jackie works into my “this film is a torch pass from the elder statesmen to Jackie” theory.

I’d be remiss not to mention the contribution of Anita Mui to the film. Her character is a source of laughs and joy from the moment she comes on-screen. Without her performance, the film wouldn’t be nearly as strong as it is, and her ability to exude charm and spunk is without equal. She has always been one of my favorite Hong Kong actresses, so every time I see her in a movie I am both in awe of her abilities, and saddened that she passed away far too early several years ago.

It’s not just Anita Mui, though, everyone involved with Drunken Master II is a master of their craft, displaying their top efforts for the benefit of every film-loving fan who’s had the pleasure of taking in Drunken Master II. In recent years, I’ve often wondered why Hong Kong doesn’t really make small-scale period kung fu films any more, as I think they’d be quick and easy to make a profit from. After seeing Drunken Master II again, I think I have my answer. Besides the industry doing this for a good 20+ years straight, Drunken Master II, as the culmination of this period of filmmaking, is something that no one will ever top. With the rise of CG, these types of films were always doomed, so at least Jackie and Lau Kar-Leung came together on this loving tribute to the genre as it was, representing its absolute pinnacle.

Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan is the one that introduced me and many others to the man: Stanley Tong’s Rumble in the Bronx! See ya then!

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