Saturday, June 11, 2011

Shaw Brothers marathon: Come Drink With Me

Come Drink With Me (1966, King Hu)
The Shaw Brothers marathon begins at long last. This 1966 entry was something of a revelation in how it kept on bringing a series of surprises as the narrative evolved. There is always something thrilling and fascinating about a movie that defies ones expectations and gives an audience something other than what was anticipated. Truth be told, there were not any legitimate expectations seeing as how Come Drink With Me was one of the very first Shaw Brothers films the author ever saw. Still, King Hu’s efforts in putting an interesting twist on specific characters and narrative elements did not go unnoticed. Not everything in movies which willingly choose to play things differently can fit together, and while Come Drink With Me does experience some slight turbulence at times, the end result made for a memorable 90 minutes. 

Set some time ago (the period is unspecified) a party of men transporting a general’s son across the mountainous countryside is ambushed by a hoard of gangsters, who at first pose themselves rather peacefully, but demonstrate their more aggressive tendencies once the party refuses to hand over the general’s son. The purpose of the hostage takeover rests with the current detention of the gang’s leader, the latter whom is captive by the general in question. It is only a matter time before the general’s daughter and cunning warrior, code name Golden Swallow (Chang Pei-pei) is given the mandate to find her brother and return him safely. As the saying goes, one does not negotiate with terrorists. These are not just any ordinary gangsters though. With vile creatures such as Smiling Tiger (Li  Yun-Chung) and Sleek Face (Chang Hung Lit) acting as interim decision makers, Golden Swallow has her work cut out for her. Thankfully she is assisted by the eccentric Drunk Cat (Hua Yueh), a man who seems to enjoy spending his time guiding a chorus of young children than actually fighting, but his martial arts talents are greater than Golden Swallow or any of her closest enemies imagine...
Come Drink With Me is a film that clearly has ambition. It wants to play the game by its own rules, with characters that are at times weird yet very much at home in a world filled with code named warriors, martial arts masters masquerading as poor drunks and bandits who give themselves names the likes of Smiling Tiger and Sleek Face. Almost everybody the viewer encounters is fun to watch act out their role in the story as the movie zips along. King Hu, one of the more prominent and highly regarded directors to have worked within the Shaw Brothers studio system, weaves a tale in which appearances are continuously deceiving the audience, as well as the others characters inhabiting the world of the film. First and foremost, there is Golden Swallow, whom the audience does now know to be a woman at first. There is an early scene after the general’s son is kidnapped when the hoodlums weigh their options regarding a prisoner exchange. It appears as if the gangsters themselves are unaware of Swallow’s real sex, so the surprise catches both them and the audience when the revelation occurs. Additionally, unlike a film reviewed here not so long ago (An Empress and the Warriors), this film actually stick to its guns and makes its leading female character important and cool all the way through. Then there are the chief villains, Smiling Tiger and Sleek Face. The former masks his ill intentions and soul with kind, warm looks while conversing with the enemy. The latter, with his chalk-white face and soft mannerisms, comes across as quite gentle. For more reasons than one, Sleek Face resembled a Chinese Joker, and the comparison is probably not far off all things considered. Both however are cold-blooded killers and when the time is right, neither hesitates to dispatch a foe. The full force of Drunk Cat’s powers are not revealed until very late in the film when, just in case the movie was lacking in surprises, his elder brother (and member of the same league of warriors) makes an appearance and demonstrates his own supernatural skills. Keeping things fresh with a host of characters who earn their place thanks to oddball contradictions is a large reason why Hu’s film is so successful. 

Having unique individuals is one thing, but there needs to be some good chemistry among the cast members, as is the case with Cheng Pei-pei and Yueh Hua. Each puts their own stamp on their roles, with Golden Swallow being the straight-woman next to Drunk Cat’s more fun loving nature.  For lack of a better sentence, they simply make a very fun team, despite that the early goings are less than harmonious. Seeing the manner in which their partnership developed, I was amazed at how their story arc was similar to the ones found in the ever popular genre of ‘buddy cop’ flicks. In such films the two principle characters never enjoy each other’s company at first and must slowly but surely learn to work together in order to achieve their ultimate goals. Come Drink With Me does not exactly follow that pattern since Drunk Cat does willingly assist Golden Swallow in some subtle ways early on, but hald of the equation just right, since the leading lady cannot stand her male counterpart’s annoying antics. Of course, once he reveals exactly who he is, all can be forgiven and the two work like the most dynamic of duos, like in so many buddy cop adventures.  

Another aspect to the film that impressed as well as surprised was the level of intensity found in the action. Hu and the screenwriters may have not have all that keen on spending too much time on plot because they keep things rather simple and effective most of the way through (the one hiccup perhaps being the inclusion of Drunk Cat’s brother so late in the narrative, which unfortunately and suddenly takes the focus away from Golden Swallow). When it comes to action however, they really ramp things up a few notches. It feels as though there is some sort of fight sequence at least once every 10 minutes. Some are smaller and more intimate, while others are sprawling and last a long time, like the knife and sword fight opposing Swallow and Sleek Face, as well as dozens of his goons, in and outside of a temple. The choreography is sharp, and the actors move with a dangerous cocktail of grace and power. The preparation for these scenes must have been exhaustive given their elaborate and sophisticated nature. The intensity mentioned above pertains to the type of violence shown at times. There are some characters who really get it good in Come Drink With Me, including a small boy who receives a poisonous dart in the eye no less, courtesy of non other than Sleek Face. Gushes of blood as swords are plunged into men’s chests, spears piercing chests, the filmmakers are unafraid of showing some nasty deaths. On a surface level, such a quality may not appeal to some for it can appear gratuitous. A little bit of hard action and violence can give a film that extra lift in needs to exemplify the danger each character is in at all times. I would not go so far as to say that no holds are barred, but Come Drink With Me definitely has some scenes which are pretty violent.
Come Drink With Me made for a fantastic start to this marathon, so much so that it can be strongly recommended for anyone wishing to discover some Shaw Brothers movies for the first time. A great female lead, and fun partner, memorable villains and some awesome action are just about everything a martial arts movie fan ask for to get excited.

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