Friday, March 13, 2009

COME DRINK WITH ME (Da zui xia, 1966)

From most accounts, King Hu was the John Ford of martial arts movies, and this is his Stagecoach: the movie that supposedly gave the genre artistic legitimacy. As Bey Logan explains in a documentary segment, King Hu is reputedly the first director to apply art direction, particularly a strong sense of landscape, along with a musically-influenced sense of dramatic choreography, to subject matter that was previously just planted in front of the camera. On the strength of the beautiful looking Dragon Dynasty DVD I borrowed from the Albany Public Library, I can believe the hype. I had also seen a later King Hu film, A Touch of Zen, years ago. That film was nearly twice as long as Come Drink With Me, and while I liked it, the earlier film benefits from concision. It also benefits from the extraordinary presence of Ching Pei-Pei as a pioneer ass-kicking heroine.

As I've noted before, the Chinese have been very progressive in their presentation of fighting women in films. Compare Come Drink With Me with some contemporary attempts at making female Western heroes -- films like Cat Ballou, Hannie Caulder, or even Viva Maria! -- and the Chinese cinema leaves the Westerns, not to mention the West, in the dust.

Ching is the Golden Swallow, the sister of Mr. Zhang, an official who is kidnapped by a bandit band while commanding a caravan of prisoners. The bandits, led by a pancake-makeup favoring joker nicknamed "Sleek Face," want their top gang leader freed from death row, or they'll kill Mr. Zhang. Golden Swallow comes to town to negotiate the exchange, but isn't about to take crap from the gang -- some of whom seem to take her for a young man. She's perfectly capable of kicking limitless ass on her own, but she has some unwanted help from a drunken stranger who keeps butting in at the inn, where his main occupation seems to be leading a chorus of beggar children. He's called Drunk Cat, and when you see drunkards in kung fu or wuxia movies, you know you better keep an eye on him.

Through his songs and other clues, Drunk Cat informs Golden Swallow that the bandits are using a Buddhist temple as their headquarters. She visits the temple and gets into another big brawl with the bandits. She cuts a bloody swath through the lesser goons, but Sleek Face seems like an even match until Golden Swallow stumbles and falls. Then Drunk Cat throws a fruit peel at Sleek Face's feet and the villain falls on his butt. Golden Swallow escapes by running up an obviously canvas "wall," but not before Sleek nails her with a toxic dart.

GS makes good her escape, but passes out in the woods. She wakes up at Drunk Cat's house by a waterfall. Initially scandalized by his presumption, she has little choice but to submit when he says, "Come here, let me draw the toxic pus out of you." It's not his normal vintage, but he drains her with gusto. When some of the bandits show up, he shows his true colors by killing them all with his super kung fu. He then resumes the drunk act and takes the bodies to the temple, humbly telling the bandits that Golden Swallow killed them all, and that she sneers at their poison darts.

Once Golden Swallow gets healthy you'd suppose that she and Drunk Cat against the bandits would be unfair. Fortunately for the bad guys, Master Liao Kang arrives at the temple to tell Sleek Face and company that those corpses were the handiwork of his "younger brother" from the "Kong Fu League," known to him as "Fan Big Drunk" and the thief of the League's prestigious Green Wand, a late arriving Macguffin if there ever was one. The Master can crack a coffin open with one blow from his bare hand. Should we be worried?

Drunk Cat is. Back home, he practices his skills, including some sort of spirit force that looks like it could do serious violence to the ozone layer. He shows off his power by having Golden Swallow throw heavy rocks at him while he catches and holds them aloft with one fingertip. He's not proud, however; he's worried that the Master, who killed their old master (to no one's surprise), will whup him when the big showdown comes.

But this is Golden Swallow's story and she has a prisoner exchange to attend to. For the occasion, she brings along what looks like her own private army of women warriors. At moments the movie looks like The Clones of Ching Pei-Pei with really good special effects as the Chinese amazons tear through the bandits when the deal goes sour -- thanks to Drunk Cat sabotaging the exchange in the government's favor.

GS herself wipes out most of the bosses, but Master Liao intervenes before she can finish Sleek Face. How badass is the Master? We've just seen Golden Swallow annihilate numerous men, and she can't even hurt this guy. It's a good thing Drunk Cat shows up for some super aerosol combat. And he shouldn't have questioned himself, since he administers an excellent beating on his "elder brother." Then the fool spares him, guaranteeing that there'll be at least one more fight in this movie....

The one disappointing aspect of Come Drink With Me is that for the last ten minutes or so it ceases to be Golden Swallow's story. Once it's apparent that she's no match for the Master she's reduced to bystander status and Drunk Cat/Fan Big Drunk takes over the picture. It seems like there should have been something for her to do to reclaim the movie, but it simply comes to an end with her departing with her army and Drunk Cat remaining with his kids. Any teasing of a romance between the heroes is just that. Golden Swallow doesn't really have anything like a "character arc" to hold the film together. She just kicks butt until she can't, and her real job is to look good doing it. Ching Pei-Pei's ballet training really serves her well, and King Hu's gracefully tracking camera is as much her dance partner as any of her antagonists. She is less vivacious than intense, as if she had something to avenge rather than her brother to rescue. That's probably meant to contrast with Hua Yueh's broad playing as the drunken hero (whose alcohol comes in handy during a climactic fight). His charismatic performance, including a musical number, made me imagine Gene Kelly taking the experiment of his casting in MGM's Three Musketeers a step further, making a fully musical swashbuckler and taking American cinema on a road not taken.

Come Drink With Me has been the subject of several homages, from Ang Lee's casting of Ching Pei-Pei as the villain of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to a vengeful female's utterance of the title as a line in the Jackie Chan-Jet Li crapfest The Forbidden Kingdom. Once you see it you can understand the desire to tip one's hat when you have the chance. It doesn't need the CGI overkill of today's Chinese epics to be one of the genre's most artistically striking films. I recommend it unreservedly to martial arts fans and fans of female action cinema. I only wish the subtitling were a little better. It seems to trip over idiom sometimes, while making inexplicable choices of translation, as when Sleek Face chews out a henchman by calling him a "nebbish." Details like that may make a subtitled film more attractive to some people, but Come Drink With Me can be taken straight. Here's a recap.

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