Let's Drink A Toast To Our Ship That's Sinking: Drunken Master (1978)

I have rather vague memories of watching something regarding silent film stars while spending a summer with my grandparents.  From this documentary, I was able to glean two things:  First, I learned about Harold Lloyd and his doing amazing death defying stunts despite only having one hand.  This fact, remained in my memory and when I finally caught up with the film roughly around this time laster year, I was amazed to recollect it with little to no effort.  Secondly, I remember witnessing a portion of an interview with Jackie Chan, wherein he makes considerable note of the influences the early slapstick masters had upon his performances and particular choice to do comedic film.  The interview as aired with clips of Chan from Drunken Master, and ever since then it has been a film that seemed to just linger in my memory, so when I finally undertook this kung fu marathon, it was yet another title that "had to be" included.  There was a decided amount of hesitation to this inclusion, because I was worried that the vague memories might not have been as nice upon fully engaging with the film, particularly since the film does have a narrative it must incorporate while also displaying excellent martial arts choreography.  My memories were not completely betrayed however, because while the film does tend to wander narratively, almost to the point of being a set of sketches more than a coherent story, the choreography and fight scenes in this film are excellent, at times even outright hilarious.  I mea the fights in this are really really good, despite being under the guise of humor, what Chan and some of the other members of the cast are able to do with their bodies, often simultaneously, equals that of the prowess and perfection of the late Bruce Lee.  While I am uncertain as to where to fall critically on a film that, undoubtedly, embraces the possibility for highly functioning alcoholism, Drunken Master does manage to be a film that is both incredibly indicative of its late seventies production, while also possessing a degree of endearing coming of age elements that make for a decidedly worthwhile experience.  Chan manages to make light use of bawdy humor to great effect, while the narrative moves about in a critical manner, deconstructing misinformation concerning the expectations and limitations of gendered and classed bodies.

Drunken Master begins in a dojo where the cunning and often mischievous Wong Fei-hung, Freddy Wong in the English dub, (Jackie Chan) practices his martial arts under the tutelage of his father.  Given that his father is indeed the head of the dojo, affords Wong a considerable amount of indifference to all other authority figures, to the point of attacking them in jest.  During one day in the village, Wong makes unwarranted advances on a young girl, whose mother happens to also be present, an act that proves highly ill-conceived in the later discovery that the girl's mother is indeed related to the family.  When Wong's father discovers his childish and repugnant acts, he disowns him, claiming that the only way he could come to respect is son again would be for him to train heavily in martial arts and become a well-known master.  Of course, Wong's dad's idea of who would make a great master flies in the face of Wong's desultory lifestyle and the young man instead decides to take about moving through the world on his own.  His unemployment and lack of direction lead to attempts on his part to obtain meals from restaurants without paying, which immediately land him in hot water with the staff.  Instead of being obliterated by the other fighters, Wong is rescued by an elderly old man known as Beggar So (Yuen Siu-tien), who just happens to be a master in the unusual martial art techniques of The Eight Drunken Immortals, or more colloquially Drunken Boxing.  Still resistant to authority, Wong attempts to cheat at his training, often waiting until Beggar falls asleep to end training or advance his task in noticeable ways.  However, when Beggar is attacked by the martial arts assassin Thunderleg (Hwang Jang Lee) Wong comes to realize the importance of martial arts both as a way of defending onesself, as well as a means by which to aid those in need.  Putting slightly more effort into his training, Wong quickly becomes proficient at the various styles within drunken boxing, which range from kick heavy attacks to blocks that rely primarily on the wrist.  Wong, however, is hesitant to embrace the styles that are deemed feminine.  Nonetheless, while returning to show his father his skill, Wong meets Thunderleg in a fight, proving his skill and eventually using the very style he dismissed as a means to destroy the deadly assassin.  This act, one that happens to save his father, also gains the respect he had been denied prior, as well as a considerable amount of self-growth.

Can a film that essentially promotes a figure who uses alcohol as a means to attain his point of perfection, be considered entirely positive?  Probably not, but Drunken Master only uses this sort of stumbling buffoon iconography as a gateway to consider larger narratives of social expectation and access based on identity.  One cannot deny that Wong comes from a considerably well-to-do status since he is the son of a kungfu master and is provided a space within which to occupy indefinitely.  However, he is also a person who seems decidedly against performing stoicism or a follower of rigid social norms.  Indeed, where it not for his highly problematic advances towards the women at the beginning of the film, he would seem like a careless trickster, who was doing hardly any harm and when it did occur it was directed at persons of privilege and decadence.  As such, Drunken Master becomes not a film of conformity, but instead appropriation.  Considering that it is expected of Wong to train in martial arts and to, subsequently, become a master, a degree of seriousness is to be associated with the endeavor, much as is the case when a person decides to undertake a martial art, usually based on discipline.  Instead, Wong manages to find a martial art that, while no less impressive physically, does allow him a degree of improvisation and unruliness, thus letting his lifestyle influence his martial arts, as opposed to the restrictions of his discipline changing his personal behavior.  Wong could not be expected to ever earn a place in the prestigious ranks of a Shaolin temple, but, to be fair, he clearly has no desire to do so.  Knowing full and well that to attack the girls was wrong, Wong is capable of making changes to his life and reconsidering what is a necessary social agreement and what rules are made to be broken.  This is perhaps most clear when he steps up to defend his father against Thunderleg.  The Wong of the early portion of the film would likely have dealt with such an encounter with indifference, because he would not have seen how it affected him.  Yet, after earning the skills of his unusual form of martial arts, he also understands that killing for money is wrong and that defending against such acts is not a point of ambiguity.  Such meshes are welcomed in his mixing of styles, but not in the realm of defining and defending a human life.

Key Scene:  The moment when Beggar trains Wong through what can only be described as a "mannequin method" is impressive kung fu choreography, if only for its reliance on two bodies moving in unique ways.

This is a solid rental and well worth engaging with for its unique reconsideration of the genre, while also staying decidedly within its traditional confines.

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