Jackie Chan’s first monster hit comes to Blu-ray today courtesy of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema. Indy Datta will take a look, just after he’s necked three catties of rice wine and vanquished his nemesis.
By the production of 1978’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Jackie Chan had been toiling away in the Hong Kong film industry to little end for years, starting as a child actor while still at the Peking Opera School and latterly enduring a wretched period under contract to producer Lo Wei, who aimed to groom him as the successor to Bruce Lee, a role that Chan believed a waste of his finely-honed talent for physical comedy, and in which audiences repeatedly spurned him. Rival producer Ng See-yuen secured a two picture loan of Chan’s services for Snake and one further film – and he and director/martial arts trainer/fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping had the vision to finally unleash Chan’s genius. The result: Snake was the biggest hit to date at the Hong Kong box office, until it was blown out of the water a few months later by the second film of the two film deal, Drunken Master.
Drunken Master, like many classic Hong Kong martial arts movies, is rooted in folklore, being nominally inspired by the life story of physician and martial artist Wong Fei-hung, whose life spanned the Qing Dynasty and the Warlord Era, and his relationships with two members of the renowned Ten Tigers of Canton, his father Wong Kei-ying and his kung-fu teacher So Chan, aka Beggar So – the drunken master of the film’s title (played here by Yuen’s father Yien Siu-Tien), so-called because of his secret “Drunken Fist” style of kung-fu fighting, here shown as only being achievable when several sheets to the wind, and also (at least in the case of the character as depicted here) because he’s a barely-functioning alcoholic.
Although the film has the basic shape of many other stories about a young fighter’s journey to moral and technical mastery, what set it apart in 1978, and what continues to make Chan’s work unique (notwithstanding his obvious influence on the likes of Stephen Chow) is its blend of virtuosity and silliness. Chan’s callow Wong Fei-hung does become a great fighter, and does earn back his father’s lost respect by mastering the art of the Drunken Fist to save him from the attack of a deadly assassin, but Chan and Yuen never demand that you take their hero’s journey all that seriously – there’s always a dumb fart joke around the corner to undercut any pomposity.
The vast majority of the film is taken up by fight sequences and training sequences and montages – it’s a tribute to Yuen’s instinct for storytelling through fight choreography and Chan’s quicksilver physicality and comic timing that this never becomes remotely repetitive. This remains a riotously inventive and entertaining film, only really dated in its use of wildly overemphatic foley effects in the fight scenes. Kapow!
Tediously predictable to say, but this is another first-rate package from Eureka. The film itself, while no great beauty, has probably never looked better, a few dupey-looking shots aside: the comparison to the picture quality of the version currently available on UK Netflix is like night and day, and that’s before accounting for the vastly improved English language subtitles on the disc – the Netflix subs are “dubtitles” derived from the English-language dub, which is available in both formats and should be avoided on either. The Cantonese soundtrack is uncompressed linear mono, and does the job.
The extra features on disc and in the accompanying booklet provide a wide variety of critical and fannish perspectives that will take hours to plough through, and I will confess that I have hours to go and have only sampled, for example, the Tony Rayns interview, or the 2002 commentary by Ric Meyers and Jeff Yang. A highlight so far is the interview with Gareth The Raid Evans. This disc is an essential purchase for fans of Jackie Chan or Hong Kong cinema.