Drunken Master 2: Jackie Chan’s Farewell to Hong Kong

| Alex Kies |

Drunken Master 2 screens on 35mm at the Trylon from Friday, September 10 to Sunday, September 12. For more information and tickets, visit trylon.org.

Drunken Master 2 is one of the last classic traditional kung fu films the Hong Kong studio system produced. It’s a mishmash of martial arts and filmmaking styles, a text as rich as it is entertaining.

In 1993, Jet Li and Tsui Hark had achieved international recognition for their rendition of the Wong Fei-hung story with Once Upon a Time in China. Wong Fei-hung is one of China’s great folk heroes, a figure of great national pride. Countless iterations of his stories have played in the movie houses of Hong Kong and China. Hark and Li’s take on the classic character was inspired by wuxia films, placing the character in a legendary, superhuman context.

15 years previously, Jackie Chan’s portrayal of Wong Fei-hung in Drunken Master vaulted him to stardom. Although hardly his first film, it is one of the first great articulations of his unique physical comedy. Chan decided for one of his final starring roles before departing for his third and final foray into Hollywood he would revisit the character as a response to Hark’s wuxia-inspired film:

This film will be different! No wires! Before I told Tsui Hark, when you do Wong Fei-hung, make it real. Instead he had everyone flying. It’s like a fantasy. In Drunken Master 2, we only show what we can do, what my stunt men can do.

Fellow kung fu legend Lau Kar-leung was brought onboard to direct. Kar-leung had come up as a fight choreographer for the venerable Chang Cheh and directed several genre-defining masterpieces in his own right. His work in 36 Chambers of Shaolin and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter had become recognizable even in the West by 1994. But perhaps most relevant to Drunken Master 2 was his 1979 classic Dirty Ho, a masterful comedic kung fu film featuring an incredibly athletic and stylized performance from the great Gordon Liu.

Furthermore, Drunken Master 2 is Kar-leung’s second telling of a Wong Fei-Hung story (the original being 1982’s Martial Club, also starring Liu). Hong Kong audiences would also have known Kar-leung from supporting roles and choreography in the original 99-film Wong Fei-hung series. Kar-leung, an actor and martial artist in his own right, also has a supporting role in Drunken Master 2 as  “the most decorated soldier ever,” dueling Jackie’s Wong Fei-hung before taking him under his wing.

Much had changed in the intervening 16 years between Chan’s Drunken Masters. In addition to his martial and comedic physical prowess, Chan had become known internationally for his incredible stunt work as epitomized by the Police Story films and Project A. Chan had also become a director, enjoying incredible amounts of success at the box office and during award season. This success garnered him almost total artistic control over his own projects. Contemporaneous reports questioned if Chan’s perfectionism could mesh with Kar-leung’s own, more old school, locked down style.

Hong Kong’s political landscape had changed as well. Drunken Master 2 would ultimately be Chan’s final Hong Kong film (give or take) before the Handover, and it is very much geared towards the mainland market. This is evident from the first frame: a shot of the British consulate in Manchuria. Colonial functionaries and collaborators accost Fei-Hung and his friends and family throughout the film. Chan scolds the sniveling collaborators in the climactic battle scene: “Don’t you know what you’re doing? He’s helping foreigners ship away China’s Treasures. Why help him?”

The plot, catalyzed by a screwball mix-em-up of luggage at a British customs checkpoint, concerns Wong Fei-Hung’s struggle with his mother and father’s dueling expectations of him, specifically over his imbibing of alcohol to bolster his practice of drunken kung fu. His mother (a highlight comedic performance by “Hong Kong’s Madonna” Anita Mui, nine years Chan’s junior) encourages him to drink and fight and his father forbids it. Meanwhile, Fei-Hung and his friends (including a very handsome Andy Lau) uncover a sinister British plot to smuggle priceless Chinese cultural artifacts out of the country with the help of opportunistic Chinese capitalists.

The rumors of on-set tension between Kar-leung and Chan’s sensibilities turned out to be well-founded. Chan fired Kar-leung about two thirds of the way through production. Hong Kong films were still shot chronologically in those days, and though he remains the sole credited director, Kar-leung’s departure is sharply apparent (perhaps accentuated by his character’s death around that point in the runtime). The action scenes preceding it are nimbly directed, but individual shots feature continuous chains of moves from wide angles. The camera moves, but only to show the action from different vantage points.

Once Chan takes over, however, the number of cuts skyrocket, not to mention set-ups and angles, and feats of physical derring-do. Chan and his army of stunt men were famous for incorporating everyday objects into their fights, and the final showdown in the “Steel Factory” utilizes flame throwers, steel rods, and industrial alcohol, among others. The film becomes a much more modern take on the action. Roger Ebert said in his review of the final scene: “this extended virtuoso effort sets some kind of benchmark: It may not be possible to film a better fight scene.” Chan told Fredric Dannen it took him four months to shoot, and it shows.

Because the film reflects its own production, it begins as a very traditional story and becomes more 20th century as it develops. The final set piece of Drunken Master 2 is maximalist filmmaking within the context of a traditional kung fu film, pushing the limits of style and form into the modern world of cinema. Although so-called traditional had been less and less popular since the early 80s, Drunken Master 2 was a smash at the Hong Kong box office. Chan and Kar-leung both won awards for their work.

To capitalize on Chan’s Western popularity, Drunken Master 2 was released in a heavily edited version in the US (although one of the main edits was the removal of the original’s less-than-P.C. ending) as The Legend of Drunken Master. The original cut, being shown at the Trylon this weekend, has not been widely screened in the US.

Edited by Brad Stiffler

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