The Shaw Brothers were the kings of Hong Kong cinema in the 1960s, delivering fast-moving, energetic, colorful films with lots of action on a budget. Audiences didn’t care that forests and mountain-top battles played on soundstages in front of painted backdrops as often as they went on location. These delivered a kind of theater that audiences loved. Naïve? Maybe, but it’s kind of refreshing in this cynical age of action movies.
Come Drink with Me (1966) is a landmark of Hong Kong cinema and a classic of the wuxia pian (“martial chivalry” genre), a genre that director King Hu redefined with this delightfully spry mix of action, humor, and costume spectacle. Cheng Pei-Pei stars as the pixie-ish Golden Swallow, a determined young female warrior on a mission to save her kidnapped brother. Yueh Hua is the amiable beggar Drunken Cat, the charming rogue leader of a singing brood of orphans who is secretly a martial arts master and guardian angel to the avenging Golden Swallow, his drunken front hiding his true identity. Together they take on the pale and powdered Jade-faced Tiger and his bandit army, in wild battles with magnificent action choreography and comic flourishes. Yueh Hua make a charming rogue with a genuine modesty and easy-going quality in contrast to the cool intensity of Cheng Pei-Pei, whose control becomes a sexy fierceness in the heat of battle. The film soars on a lyrical mix of scruffy singing heroes, cross-dressing heroines, narcissistic villains, and fantastical action choreographed like dance.
The film launched a new wave of Hong Kong filmmaking and you can feel its influence in everything from Bruce Lee’s martial arts thrillers of the 1970s to Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master films to the Tsui Hark-led new wave of high energy, special effects laden adventures in 1980s Hong Kong, and of course, the Oscar winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee’s tribute the magical, colorful genre that King Hu reinvented with this film. He even cast Cheng Pei-Pei in a major role in honor of his inspiration.
The title of One-Armed Swordsman (1967) pretty much says it all: a gifted but proud martial arts student (Wang Yu, later Jimmy Wang Yu) overcomes the loss of a limb (sliced off by a confused young woman) and defends his teacher from a ruthless rival bent on revenge. Chang Cheh’s martial arts drama favors clashing swords and brutalized bodies over the beauty of the bodies in motion over the romance and grace of Come Drink with Me. With its petty jealousies, rival martial arts schools, and gimmicky weapons, it launched the harder-edged style of 1970s martial arts movies, but this film has a touch of Zen missing from those leaner, meaner films.
Come Drink With Me is now also on Netflix. Queue it up!
Also available as a Video On Demand rental from Amazon