It feels kind of odd to say that a Chinese martial arts film from the mid-’60s feels far more progressive than the majority of American cinema (action or otherwise), but that’s one of the lingering impressions I had after watching King Hu’s 1966 film “Come Drink With Me.”
Only Joe Wright’s 2011 film “Hanna” feels like it was made in the same vein as Hu’s, in that it features a young girl capably taking on a steady flow of domineering and intimidating men. But even then, it had to stoop to the level of making Saorise Ronan’s character a manipulated, mentally fractured young woman to make her capable enough to fight. Pei-Pei Chang’s Golden Swallow feels positively mundane by comparison, yet is still able to fearlessly and capably hold her own against rowdy gangs of men as she attempts to rescue her brother.
This is a facet of Chinese action cinema that is fascinating to me. For centuries, the Chinese have considered women to be every bit a match for men when it comes to fighting. Numerous movies and even Chinese opera prominently featured strong female fighters. Even Chinese folklore states that Wing Chun style kung fu as being created by a woman.
Granted, “Come Drink With Me” can feel a bit silly at times. The fake blood looks more like paint, there are a couple points where it’s painfully obvious that the film speed has been cranked up and the choreography feels pretty basic. But what it lacks in technical complexity, Hu more than makes up for with his a sense of style.
The genre had seen its share of more realistic martial arts films and wuxia (productions with a more of a fantastical bent, i.e. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “Hero”), but Hu, a novice filmmaker at the time, wanted something that found more of a middle ground. He wanted to make a film that showcased strong fight scenes with balletic movement and that possessed a look and feel inspired by Chinese opera. I can’t quite say this definitively given my overall inexperience with kung fu films, but the result is a film that feels like it’s trying new things and breaks some new ground within a genre that was still relatively young.
There’s a lot to like about this. Cheng makes for a capable lead and her background as a dancer certainly is put to use in fulfilling Hu’s goal of balletic action. I also loved the set design. The barroom at the inn, the monastery, the lagoon hideout, so many great locations that feel rich with detail and design. There’s never a moment where the locales look and feel like anything other than sets, but there’s certain charm to seeing design like this and it certainly meshes with Hu’s intention of bringing a sort of stage-bound aesthetic to the screen.
It also struck me that “Come Drink With Me” was a point of inspiration for Ang Lee when making “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The rooftop chase scene, several fights and locations, characters’ propensity for throwing and catching darts all clearly have shared DNA. Heck, Lee even cast Cheng as the villain, Jade Fox.
One final note, last week saw the passing of Sir Run Run Shaw, producer and founder of Shaw Bros. Studio, which saw the creation of hundreds of films, many of them made on the company’s 48 acre backlot. “Come Drink With Me” was one of 17 films produced by Shaw Bros. in 1966. And though Shaw never limited himself to only kung fu films, it is undoubtedly his work within that genre that retains the most notable and lasting impact. He was 106.
Next week, I’ll continue my series on classic kung fu movies with a review of Jackie Chan’s “Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin,” “The One-armed Swordsman” and “Ten Tigers of Kwangtung.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.