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There’s a certain B-Movie stigma about Martial Arts cinema that a lot of Kung fu flicks have a hard time shaking. By default, Martial Arts movies are generally about presenting action and are usually judged solely on how well they’re able to produce and display that action onscreen, so therefore most of the films created within genre are simply trying to be the best that they can on that one-dimensional scale. By result, most of the memorable examples of the genre out there are the ones that have been exemplarily produced on that level, but there are certain films, especially within the last decade, trying desperately to attain for an even high level of cinema..
It’s these examples that have dared to include subtle performances and powerful dramatic sequences in amongst the heart stopping fight scenes. These would include the recent works of Zhang Yimou, such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, the Shakespearean adaptation Curse of the Black Scorpion, and the Martial Arts cinema gold standard, Ang Lee‘s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It is within these pictures that film makers have tried to find real beauty within the mayhem and Kung Fu, and unfortunately, outside of the last few years it is more difficult to try and find these types of examples.
This is what makes the works of King Hu in the 1960’s so important to the genre as a whole. While not being able to match up with the intricacies of modern fight choreography or camerawork, Hu’s films seemed to strive for being not just great Martial Arts films, but great films in general. His movies, like A Touch of Zen, had depth in their storytelling, with characters displaying deeper emotions than your run of the mill fight flicks. With the DVD release of his masterpiece, Come Drink with Me, new Martial Arts fans can discover Hu on their own, and also get to finally see how he influenced many film makers, especially Ang Lee and the many of his peers.
Unfortunately, the undiscerning eye might find it easy to dismiss Hu’s picture. His fights do not have the intricacies of Chang Cheh’s Venoms films or the overt comedy of Lau Kar Leung concoctions, but what he lacks in these areas he made for with gorgeous images. His production values in this picture were second to none amongst the other movies of the time, rivaling even Hollywood films of the era. Also, Hu worries not so much about the action as much as he does just presenting an epic story with emotional value, which is exactly what he is able to accomplish in spades with this tale.
Come Drink with Me involves the kidnapping of a high official by outlaws, who end up making ransom demands to the governor of the region in exchange for their captive’s life. Making demands that their imprisoned leader be released from captivity, the government sends an agent to intercept the villains. While this plot is quite simple, it is the twist and turns, and different storytelling innovations by the director that set it apart from the rest of the genre.
Some may remember Cheng Pei-Pei from her villainous performance in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but the standout role of her career is here in this film as Golden Swallow, a double-bladed warrior sent in to subdue the film’s brigands and bring home their victim before harm comes to him. Time and again, the bandits send assassins to dispense with Swallow, but again and again she dispatches them with ease. Most impressively, we get to see her subdue an entire restaurant full of combatants, overwhelming her combatants, reminiscent of Zhang Ziyi’s Teahouse romp in Crouching Tiger.
Pei-Pei absolutely shines here, as does the rest of the cast. She’s undoubtedly able to carry the picture, presenting a strong central character which the rest of the film centers around. Her chemistry with the unforgettable Yueh Hua as Drunken Cat is also incredible to witness, presenting a type of love story between the two characters, but never being so overt about it. The subtlety presented here builds this story instead of turning into melodrama, which adds to the movie’s atmosphere instead of turning it sour.
Now again, some may find fault with the film’s choreography, as the fights in the picture earlier on seem to be closer in execution to Japanese Samurai pictures of the time period than the Kung Fu films of a decade later. The battles depicted try for more realism and quick strikes, rather than extended combat, but this actually ends up helping to establish the film’s reality in its early going, making you develop relationships with these characters rather than just anticipating the next bloody action scene. Perhaps because of studio pressure, the film’s last third expands the scope of the film’s action, taking a more supernatural slant, which would be a standard motif in the genre following this picture.
Come Drink with Me is a masterpiece in just how complete it is. Not throwing together a story just as a clothesline for action, the film is still able to remain simple enough that it’s capable of sweeping in the most casual of viewers, yet its moving portrayal of heroism can also provide another level for film enthusiasts. The film’s production design and production values also can’t be understated, as the movie has sets and locations that make you yearn for the days of old Hollywood Technicolor, and the film may also shock you in just how good it’s acting really is. All in all, this is one of the most influential and important Martial Arts films of all time, and stands as one of the great accomplishments for one of Hong Kong cinema’s true artist directors.
Another bang-up job by Dragon Dynasty, as its almost impossible to tell the age of this film given the beautiful clarity of the print on this disc. Presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the colors of this transfer are beautiful, allowing viewers to get the full effect of King Hu’s gorgeous film. The audio track is also quite spectacular, presenting the best copy of this film you can get.
Feature Length Commentary with Lead Actress Cheng Pei-Pei and Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan – No surprise that this is a terrific commentary track by Logan, who is always informative on these tracks, but its also fun to get to listen to Pei-Pei, who has some terrific insights on this production and funny anecdotes on the way it was all put together. Each discuss what a seminal movie this is in the genre, and I especially found it surprising how Pei-Pei talked about how lenient the hours were that they worked, stating that most shoots on the film took place indoors during the day, so unless it was a location shoot, they didn’t have to toil away all hours of the night. The track is nearly non stop with info and is highly listenable all the way through.
The King and I: Acclaimed Director Tsui Hark Remembers King Hu – In many ways Hark is the successor to Hu’s visual and film making style, and here he gets to talk about how Come Drink with Me was such an influence on him. To hear him talk about it, no film seemed to have a bigger impact on cinema in Hong Kong, sounding much like how Star Wars became just as big an influence on film makers such as Jim Cameron and Peter Jackson in the West. Hark just talks about how the film was the first time the Sword-play/Fantasy stories from his youth were finally translated to the big screen, and how it opened up everything for film makers who would follow.
Come Speak with Me: An Exclusive Interview with Leading Lady Cheng Pei-Pei – Pei-Pei is absolutely delightful in this interview, filling us in on how the production took shape and how King Hu was more like a big brother to everybody than he was a stern director. She also goes into detail about her dance background and how it made her transition to film that much easier. She also talks about how it was a language barrier that got her into acting in the first place, as the best learning environment for the actress who only spoke Mandarin instead of the local Cantonese was actually at Shaw Brothers, who had many people to instruct her who spoke Mandarin.
A Classic Remembered: A Retrospective with Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan – Logan again has tons and tons of information to convey about this film, and spends about half an hour talking about various aspects of the production, from King Hu’s visual style and background, to the lives and careers of many of the film’s cast members. My favorite part of this Featurette has Logan lamenting that this was the only time Cheng Pei-Pei and King Hu worked together. The two are so closely entwined because of this movie, you would think they would have had a relationship like Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart, but this was not to be because of contractual obligations and fate.
Return of the Drunken Master: An Exclusive Interview with Leading Man Yueh Hua – This goes about 17 minutes as Yueh Hua tries to recall all he can about this wonderful production. Its amazing that the actor really didn’t know Kung Fu before this film, and that he only knew what he needed for films because he’s absolutely sensational in this movie and completely believable the entire way.
In short, Come Drink with Me is one of the seminal Martial Arts films and one of the most important and influential films in the history of Hong Kong cinema. From its wonderful production value and cinematography, to its epic scope and story, this is one for the ages. This DVD is also nothing to sneeze at, boasting fantastic interviews as well as another of Bey Logan’s always terrific commentaries.
Dragon Dynasty presents Come Drink with Me. Directed by: King Hu. Starring: Cheng Pei-Pei, Yueh Hua, and Hung Lieh Chen. Written by: King Hu and Yang Erh . Running time: 95 Min. Rating: Not Rated. Released on DVD: May 27, 2008a. Available at Amazon.com