The Legend of Drunken Master (Drunken Master II)

The Legend of Drunken Master (Drunken Master II). Paragon Films 1994.

Before watching the movie:

I was very close to reviewing this a few months ago, but then when I started to get ready to, I quickly learned that not only was it a foreign-language import, it was also technically a sequel. Its original Chinese title is “Drunken Master II”. However, it is described as a “reboot” of the original movie from sixteen years earlier, with “little in common with… its predecessor”.

And what’s different? Well, I was hesitant even when I found out it wasn’t originally in English. But I’ve crossed that now. After a tough month, I want to review something silly, and since this is only spiritually connected with the movie that gave this one its II, I’m not that concerned by it. I’ve reviewed adaptations and remakes, and I’m given to understand this is essentially a fresh take.

After watching the movie:

Against the wishes of his father, Dr. Wong Kei-ying, Fei-hung smuggles the ginseng they obtained for a customer past the duties office by hiding it in a British consulate worker’s bag. While attempting to retrieve it, Fei-hung encounters a Manchurian officer stealing an item in a similar package out of the luggage. The officer hits him and calls him a traitor, which Fei-hung will not allow to stand, and pursues him for an apology, using his drunken boxing style of fighting, which the officer easily counters, and they leave the altercation believing they have what they were looking for. However, the train is searched for a stolen Imperial Jade Seal, which Fei-hung narrowly avoids getting caught with instead of the ginseng he thought he’d retrieved. It is revealed that the Jade Seal is the vital missing piece of a collection of items stolen from a museum that the British Ambassador is planning to smuggle out in a shipment of steel. When his stepmother gets robbed while attempting to cover for the missing ginseng, Fei-hung gets in a fight with the Ambassador’s thugs, publicly showing off his literally drunken style of boxing, which his father has forbidden him to do, and when Kei-ying catches him, he disowns Fei-hung, throwing him into a dishonorable depression. Fei-hung has to stand up against the pilfering of Chinese culture when he can’t even stand up straight.

I should note up front that the copy I had access to was subtitled, not the US dub, and the dub might be more accessible to American audiences. Even if not a direct sequel, this turns out to be based on a real folk hero that Chinese audiences would be familiar with, leading to some parts of the lore being dropped in with the expectation the audience would already know about them. The Po Chi Lam school the Wong family runs comes up, but isn’t explained. A lot of Fei-hung’s friends seem to be previously established. Even for a martial arts movie, everyone seems to have particular notoriety for fighting skills. Glancing over the summary for the 1978 Drunken Master, it seems like a better introduction to the character of Wong Fei-hung.

It’s made quite clear that Fei-hung’s enemies are the British and the Chinese capitalists who sell out their people for wealth. Obviously that story wouldn’t translate well to audiences of the Western world, even after the end of the Cold War. But it particularly fascinates me to see a story condemning the looting of other cultures by the British told from a non-Western point of view. The exploitation of labor and resources are unfair, but the true indignity is removing the artifacts, for that is robbing them of their culture and so of their very Chinese-ness. It is a moral defeat that cannot be countenanced.

An interesting thing to observe about the fight scenes is the blending of traditional Eastern fight choreography style where everyone is on wires and flying everywhere and Chan’s very intimate, improvisational kind of fighting. The energy is the same, so it’s easy to see how they’re related to each other, but putting them together when I’ve only seen them separately before throws into relief how they each affect the other when mixed.

At times the plot was a little more involved and confusing than I expected, but there was plenty of silliness to make it worthwhile. I had gotten the impression from the first fight that “drunken” only inspired the style, but then in the middle of the second, Fei-hung starts popping bottles to gain strength like Popeye gulping a can of spinach. Now that’s the kind ludicrous antics I’m here for.

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