8/22/11

Drunken Dragon (Chui Chung-Hing, 1985)

I’ve a habit of reviewing things out of order. Drunken Dragon (aka Exciting Dragon), one of those wonderful movies that became available thanks to Toby Russel’s defunct Rarescope DVD label, is something of a coda to a series of movies orchestrated by the Yuen Clan. For those not familiar with the expansive world of Hong Kong genre film, the Yuen Clan refers to the progeny of the great Simon Yuen, a Mainland Chinese immigrant and Peking Opera practitioner who made a name for himself in the film industry as a performer and fight choreographer in the golden age of Cantonese language serials, directing action scenes in Wong Fei Hung movies and playing a villain in countless films. He used his position to place his sons in roles as stuntmen and bit-players, and they eventually worked their way up to leading roles and action-directing positions in the seventies and eighties.

The most famous member of the clan is Yuen Woo-Ping, world-renowned now as the action choreographer for influential American action films like The Matrix. But before he became the go-to guy for Hollywood’s ersatz martial arts cinema, he directed a series of classic kung fu movies, pushing the boundaries not only of traditional, old-school fight choreography in a series of films starring Jackie Chan and Hwang Jang-Lee; and he pushed the limits of wire-work, good taste, and sanity with a four-part series of mostly unrelated films starting with The Miracle Fighters.
These films (The Miracle Fighters, Shaolin Drunkard, Taoism Drunkard, and Young Taoism Fighter) feature more or less the same elements: broad slapstick and situational comedy, Taoist magic that figures heavily in the fight scenes, bizarre imagery that usually combines practical effects with virtuoso physical performance, and Woo-Ping’s brother Yuen Cheung-Yan in drag as an old lady. While the majority of the production work on these movies was done by Yuen family, a certain Chui Chung-Hing worked on the script for Shaolin Drunkard, his first writing credit. Chui worked mostly as a stunt-man and actor up until this point, usually in small parts in classically styled kung fu movies. I assume that it was his experience with the Yuens that inspired him to direct his own film, and Drunken Dragon, his first directorial effort, is an unofficial addition in the genre that can only be described as Yuen Clan movies.
The film starts with a gang of villains, Tung Fu (Phillip Ko Fei in a fright wig) and his two minions, attacking a Buddhist monastery in search of some sort of magical McGuffin. The priest guarding the item defends it from inside a boat that he rows across the floor, apparently crippled in a previous fight. Tung Fu’s assistants, a big guy with a flame-throwing candle on his head and squirrely guy who likes to throw saw blades around, transform themselves into a sort of human go-cart, with the saw blades acting as wheels of death and the flame-throwing candle as jet propulsion system, and proceed to kill the monk by sawing through his boat and his leg-stumps at the same time. Tung Fu thinks he has what he came for, but the chest in which it’s contained is locked, and trapped, and only the Seven Star Armor can protect whoever tries to open it. So Tung Fu sets off to find the Seven Star Amor.

At this point, the movie shifts to a new location, where Gao Jia (Suen Kwok-Ming) and his Granny (Chiang Sheng in drag, playing the part normally reserved for Yuen Chueng Yan) await the arrival of Gao’s fiancĂ©, Miss Tiger (the... uh, rather full-bodied Chow Mei-Yee). Miss Tiger arrives and is roughly twice the size of Gao Jia, pugnacious to a fault, and prone to solving problems by beating the crap out of the offending party. Miss Tiger manages to make an enemy of the town bully, who nearly botches a magic ritual Granny performs while trying to cure a townsperson of a magic poison. But Granny’s Seven Star Armor protects her, and the ritual comes through as a success.
Unfortunately, Tung Fu has already arrived in town, and finds out about Granny’s secret possession. Gao Jia, meanwhile, is getting tired of his friends teasing him about being a kept man. He is a talented practitioner of martial arts, but Granny is better, and Miss Tiger more frequently employs her own considerable kung fu. After losing a brutal fight with Tung Fu’s gang, Granny sends him to train with her old classmate, Ko But Lee.

Ko holds a grudge against Gao grandfather – he was in love with Granny, but she didn’t choose him. He’s less than willing to train the grandson of the man she chose, but after hearing that Gao’s grandfather is dead, he thinks that he can win Granny’s affections, and relents. So Gao Jia begins training with Ko, whose home is outfitted with odd almost steam-punk (bamboo-punk, in this context?) style technological innovations, and whose training methods involve reflex training with huge wooden mallets, strength training involving the breaking of rocks with a sledge-hammer, and endurance training involving a cart which is reigned to Gao, and on which Ko sits, reading and smoking his huge pipe.
Gao Jia returns to town for Granny’s birthday, only to find that Tung Fu has already killed her, although he hasn’t found the Seven Star Armor. That’s because Gao Jia took it with him for training. Tung Fu, Gao Jia, and Ko But Lee fight it out, but Tung Fu bests them. So Gao Jia returns with Ko for more intense training, and Tung Fu comes for the armor. Revenge is taken; the end.

The interesting thing about Drunken Dragon is how it sort of shifts from its initial Yuen Clan inspired weirdness to a standard, if especially brutal, kung fu movie. By the point that Gao Jia actually starts to train seriously for revenge, the film plays out like a condensed version of the typical Hong Kong kung-fu pic: train, then fight. And while The Miracle Fighters climaxes with orgiastic weirdness, Drunken Dragon’s final fight scene is typical of the era, with fast-paced fighting and dangerous looking stunt falls through furniture and staircases, no Taoist magic or tricky gadgets or even wire-work in sight. It’s a great fight, but it’s almost a let-down given the wild creativity on display in the film’s opening.
While the film does showcase some mean-spirited humor – when Miss Tiger runs to great Gao Jia, the film jump cuts to a POV shot of a pig running at the camera – there’s some sweetness there too. Gao Jia confides in Granny that he really loves Miss Tiger, and doesn’t really mind that she’s so big, since she loves him too. And Leung Kar Yan as Ko But Lee effectively renders his character’s love for Granny, even though the majority of his performance is scenery chewing and mugging. It’s a reprise of his role in The Miracle Fighters, and he’s as gloriously over the top as he was in that film.

But I think that Drunken Dragon can best be viewed as an experiment for Chui Chung-Hing, rather than a Yuen Clan rip-off. Chui would go on to be a major player in the glut of Taiwanese made fantasy movies of the eighties, directing Hello, Dracula, action directing Chan Jun-Leung’s Child of Peach, helming its sequel, Magic of Spell, and capping off the movement in 1990 with his ludicrous fairytale film, Twelve Fairies. All of the visual panache of those films has its roots here, in Drunken Dragon. And even without that, there’s some brilliant fight choreography happening here, which should sate the action hounds out there.
Worth a watch, this one, and the DVD can be had for cheap.

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