Yuen Woo-ping helms Drunken Master, one of Jackie Chan’s finest motion pictures. This 1978 film is directed by Yuen Woo-ping, who wrote the screenplay along with Lung Hsiao and Ng See-yuen. Chang Hui is the cinematographer and he keeps things simple, shooting scenes without many tricks. Cuts are kept to a minimum.
At the core of Drunken Master is the folk hero Wong Fei-hung, an expert in the Hung Ga style of martial arts. The style, which originated in 17th century China, relates to a number of stances and formations. The Zui Quan style is also featured in Woo-ping’s movie, with the drunken Eight Immortals of Daoist tradition forming the basis of the protagonist’s training.
Chan stars as Wong Fei-hung or Freddie Wong, a ne’er-do-well who can’t stop getting in trouble. Wong Kei-ying or Robert Wong (Lam Kau) is Wong Fei-hung’s father and he’s peeved at the antics of his son. He wants to kill him but is dissuaded by the boy’s aunt (Linda Lin), who recommends that he dedicate himself to his martial arts training.
Freddie is sent to train with Beggar So (Yuen Sien-tien), a master of the drunken martial arts. His training is difficult and Freddie struggles, often trying to take shortcuts to get around the old man’s demands. But when the nefarious Thunderleg (Hwang Jang Lee) enters the fray, the young punk decides to take things more seriously.
From the outset, Drunken Master establishes itself as an innovative and comedic martial arts picture. Chan’s character is brash and gifted, as he picks on the instructor at a martial arts school and goes on to get his ass kicked for hitting on a pretty girl. He also beats the snot out of a sword-wielding jerk in the marketplace, so the protagonist is not all bad.
But his insolence is upsetting to his father, who can’t stand the damage done to the Wong name. Things go from bad to worse when the hooligan takes in a restaurant and tries to score a free meal out of the man who turns out to be the establishment’s owner. It’s up to Beggar So to set him straight.
Woo-ping’s Drunken Master is lined with humour and vivid caricature, like when the waiter at the aforementioned restaurant talks through an enormous set of teeth. And Chan’s ego, which elevates him in the marketplace fight and undermines him in his first duel with Thunderleg, serves him as much as it lets him down.
Chan’s portrayal treats the popular Chinese figure with a sure degree of disrespect. The iconic folk hero becomes an irritable adolescent, a change in perspective that comes with certain cultural risks. Luckily, Chan plays the transformation from goof to hero with credible composure. He’s a rude tool, but he’s so devoted and just plain good at what he does that it’s hard not to root Freddie Wong on.
Of course, the martials arts action is the thing and Drunken Master is an astounding extravaganza. Chan’s litheness is something to behold, as he fights from behind in most of his encounters. This is especially true when he takes on Hwang Jang Lee, the Japanese-born martial artist. Hwang’s spin-kicks are the stuff of legend and his attack is on full display against Chan.
The fights are complex and Chan takes a thrashing at the hands of Hwang and as the result of Beggar So’s ruthless training regimen. And everything flows in a logical way, with Chan’s Wong getting better as he goes through the paces and actually using the skills he acquires.
Drunken Master is an essential martial arts picture. Woo-ping keeps things sharp and light. The action is inventive and Chan’s performance is stellar, especially when he gives way to other talents like Hwang Jang Lee and the magnificent Yuen Sien-tien. And the plot, about the conversion of a punk-ass jerk into a martial arts master, has that special sort of boozy universal appeal.