Directed by wuxia master King Hu, Come Drink with Me is an exotic and clever Hong Kong adventure movie. The Shaw Brothers production features the cinematography of Ho Lan-shan, with a screenplay by King Hu and Yi Cheung.
At the centre of Come Drink with Me is the one and only Cheng Pei-pei, who some may recall as Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s 2000 epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In this 1966 actioner and in the 1968 sequel Golden Swallow, she plays a daunting if somewhat vulnerable fighting machine.
Pei-pei is the Golden Swallow, the daughter of a general sent on a mission to rescue her brother from the clutches of bandit Jade Faced Tiger (Chan Hung-lit) and his cronies. She meets the crew, including Smiling Tiger Tsu Kan (Lee Wang-chung) at an inn and hopes to negotiate a release. When that fails, a fight breaks out and the Golden Swallow proves herself more than challenging.
The bandits scurry away to their base at a monastery, Golden Swallow is assisted by the aptly-named Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua). The beggar seems like a mere lowlife, but it turns out that he’s also in possession of some badass fighting skills. What’s more, the Drunken Cat is a martial arts master and is in possession of a magical staff – the same magical staff desired by Liao Kung (Yeung Chi-hing).
The confluence of plots in Come Drink with Me does take some of the shine off of Golden Swallow’s apple, especially when things gear up for the climactic fight between Drunken Cat and Liao Kung. There’s some neat stuff involving Golden Swallow and a mob of female warriors, but the end of the movie underwhelms.
Luckily, Come Drink with Me doesn’t press anything overtly romantic between Drunken Cat and Golden Swallow and their relationship remains predominantly platonic. This speaks to the candour of the picture, even when it turns out the master and his enemy have the ability to control certain elements.
This display of mystical chi powers should clash with King Hu’s sense of realism, but somehow it works. And the fight sequences illustrate a move away from the exaggerated productions of the period, forging a path ahead with an emphasis on spatial recognition, attentiveness and long takes.
While wuxia is mostly associated with flying across rooftops and extensive wirework, there is very little such material in Come Drink with Me. The action is couched in practicality, with breaks and lunges interposing the action. The swordplay is crisp and Pei-pei, a dancer before she was an actress, is more than game to handle the rhythmic choreography.
It’s true that Come Drink with Me lacks the romanticism of other wuxia dramas. It’s also true that it doesn’t trade in lightning-quick martial arts. And the story is indeed rather basic, but King Hu’s picture marks a necessary contextual shift in the genre and it pays to remember just how influential this film is.
Consider the fight in the inn, where the girl (somehow mistaken for a man) takes on a crew of cronies. This double-decker set piece became almost standard in martial arts movies after Come Drink with Me, with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon taking particular affection in letting Zhang Ziyi (dressed like a man) take on the bad guys in very similar surroundings.
While Come Drink with Me may not feature the most substantial conclusion or the most electric martial arts, it’s an icon of the genre for a reason. Pei-pei is spectacular, both in her subtle command of Golden Sparrow and her comprehensive understanding of genuine choreography, and King Hu’s studied shift to the here and now can still be felt to this very day.