Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Asian Audient: Drunken Master

This is the first in my new monthly series Asian Audient, in which I watch a movie I haven't seen from the continent of Asia. Duh.

My first choice in Asian Audient was not actually on my original list of about 15 titles, a list I had always planned to build on. And that building on might certainly have included Drunken Master, a "where it all began" type movie for star Jackie Chan, even though it technically "all began" years before that, as he was a child actor (a fact I've only just discovered). I kind of backed into the choice as my January days were dwindling and a number of my first choices weren't available right away without having to pay for them. This was available on Netflix.

But indeed, I had always been curious about Woo-Ping Yuen's 1978 film, not to be confused with its 1994 sequel/reboot, The Legend of Drunken Master. I'd heard it really showcased Chan's skills years before I first discovered him in 1995, in Rumble in the Bronx -- at a time when he was legitimately a young man, rather than just having the physique and the abilities of a young man. (He was already 41 in 1995, meaning most of the career that "we" -- as in, western audiences -- know came after he turned 40, making him comparatively an old man in the martial arts community.)

And yes, it's easy to see the influences of Drunken Master on all of the subsequent Chan projects that "we" know, most of which feature a comedic ballet of kicks, punches and props. Is it sacrilege to say that the ballet had not yet been perfected in 1978? Drunken Master was, it would seem, a new/different enough type of movie that we would hardly expect it to have reached the heights of cleverness that Chan would reach later on, when this was his calling card rather than a foray into something new. (As I say this, though, I fully realize that I have no credibility on the topic -- it's a bit like discovering the Gary Cherone incarnation of Van Halen and suggesting it's superior to the Sammy Hagar or David Lee Roth versions.)

Still, I can't deny that I wanted the fight scenes to feel a bit more joyously insane. There's a lot of kicking near, kicking around, punching over, punching under, and precious little of what seems like actual contact. The choreography has almost a tentative quality to it, as though the first order of business was just to make sure no one got hurt. And probably, that's a logical way to go about it.

But the Chan we would come to know later on is one who was always getting hurt -- something we saw ample examples of in the closing credit outtakes. I'm thinking of that one movie (was it Bronx? Or maybe Mr. Nice Guy?) where Chan wears an oversized sneaker in one of his scenes so he could continue to do his stunts despite having a broken foot. That's the type of balls that gave Chan the reputation as a man who would do anything to entertain us.

Don't get me wrong -- Drunken Master is entertaining, if overlong at an hour and 51 minutes. But as I watched it, I couldn't help but think of professional wrestling more often than I wanted to. Professional wrestling in its most stereotypical form involves a lot of obvious cooperation by both partners, voluntary moves that a person would never undertake if his only goal was to avoid a pummeling. I'm thinking about when a wrestler is thrown off the ropes, for example, and has to willingly run back into the awaiting clothesline, when a simple forced stoppage of his own momentum would have evaded the next move.

So yeah, Drunken Master plays like that some of the time.

But there's undeniable joy here too. This is a goofy movie. It's never serious, except for a couple apparently dramatic moments that are also played so much to the back row of the theater that one would have to assume that they too are just a big goof. Chan does a lot of eye crossing and over-emoting, and most of the time it's pretty fun. The sheer number of fight scenes, though, begin to grow exhausting.

Plot? Sure, it's worth telling you something about it. It's basically about the rascally son of a prominent land owner who gets disowned by his father and has to prove his worth to him. This occurs through any number of fights and the tutelage of wizened old master with a fondness for drink, who also submits him to a training regimen that reminded me (again, because of my limited frame of reference) of Mr. Miyagi's tasks for Daniel-sahn. Of course, that wasn't the only thing putting me in the mind of The Karate Kid -- Chan's character also does the crane fight style that's favored by Miyagi and Daniel.

What surprised me was how long it actually took to get to the bit about Chan's Freddie Wong (more on the film's Americanization in a moment) being a better fighter when he's drunk. There's more than an hour of screen time and more than 73 fights by the time it's determined that Freddie (like his master) has a taste for wine. And it turns out that the more wine he downs, the more fluid and effective his fighting style. It's a funny conceit, and it does pay good dividends, especially when Freddie alternates fighting with swigging from a ceramic jug. It sometimes seems like he drinks enough to kill him, adding to the humor.

And thank goodness the movie is eventually about drunken fighting because the fight choreography really comes to life in the film's last half hour. There's some diverting stuff before then, of course, but the fight scenes gain an extra sense of vitality in the final act. It almost seems to be an intentional choice on the director's part, to punch up the climax (literally and figuratively), but it just made me wish we'd gotten to this a bit earlier rather than having so many other disconnected fight scenes that alternately demonstrated the skill Freddie does have (which is not negligible) and the distance he still has to go to become a transcendent fighter.

By far the oddest thing in Drunken Master, though, has nothing to do with the way the film was originally made, but rather, how it was ultimately presented to English-speaking audiences. You've seen dubbed movies from Hong Kong. You've seen Hong Kong movies in Chinese with English subtitles. But when was the last time you remember seeing both at once? And presented totally randomly, at that?

That's right, while 80 percent of the spoken dialogue in this film is Chinese -- and even that's badly post-dubbed, as was par for the course for logistical reasons -- the other 20 percent is English. And it's interspersed completely randomly, sometimes changing to English and back again in the same scene for no apparent reason. It's almost as though a full English dub was not possible for some reason, but they figured they'd hook western audiences by giving at least a little English, to make the medicine of reading subtitles go down more easily. Of course, the subtitles don't actually go away when the dialogue switches to English, they just duplicate the spoken word.

There was enough about Drunken Master that didn't quite work for me that I was ready to go marginally negative on it until the last 30 minutes redeemed it to a marginally positive review. And indeed, it was fun to see some of the on-screen origins of a first-rate physical dynamo.

What's up for February? Possibly Akira Kurosawa's High and Low. I've reserved it from the library, anyway. In delving into more of the catalogue of one of my favorite directors, I actually feel more of an interest in The Hidden Fortress, Stray Dog and Dreams, but this is the one that I could easily source for free, so in February it shall be.

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