For the first time ever, the classic Jackie Chan kung-fu masterpiece The Legend of Drunken Master (or Drunken Master II) will be available in the original uncut Cantonese with English subtitles. It’d be a mistake of a lifetime to miss out on quite possibly your only chance to ever see this film on the big screen.
Director Lau Kar-leung’s Drunken Master II (1994), a sequel to the 1978 film Drunken Master and co-directed by Chan, wasn’t released in the United States until 2000. The version released here went by the title The Legend of Drunken Master, and, per the usual studio mandates, saw a few forced edits to make the film more palatable to the American audience. With only two notable changes, the revisions were comparatively minor in number compared to its prequel and “sequels,” although they completely change the arc of Wong Fei-hung (Jackie Chan), the main character and drunken boxer alluded to by the title (though, “the Master” really refers to a character in the original film).
As promised, Wong’s martial art of choice is called “drunken boxing,” which to comedic effect imitates the sloppy, rhythmless moves of a drunkard—though his father, a doctor, (Wong Kei-ying, played by the sturdy and respectable Ti Lung) disapproves of the style for its habit of encouraging alcoholism. Usually, Wong doesn’t require the aid of the substance itself: he’s a good enough fighter on his own right. But as Wong fights wasted on occasion, the almost calculatedly defensive nature of the style—which is even commented upon by one of his early opponents—becomes more recognizable as a drunken capade, more like a college frat boy brawl or a heated argument about the ball game turned fisticuffs.
The fighting starts right away, as Wong and the state official Fu Wen-chi (Lau Kar-leung) get in a fight on a train returning to Canton. The two men exchange bows and pick up the wrong luggage: Fu grabs a box holding Wong’s ginseng root meant to treat one of his father’s ailing clients, and Wong grabs a box possessing a mysterious object he struggles to make sense of, only to later realize it’s the royal seal. (For another quality East Asian movie about a misplaced royal seal, see the South Korean action-comedy The Pirates, where a whale swallows the Joseon seal).
In more than one way, this is also a timely movie, giving air time to the theme of returning looted cultural artifacts currently gaining traction in the cultural milieu. In the pandemic era, formerly colonized countries seem to have become more confident in demanding their stolen loot back: Cambodia is making demands on the United Kingdom, Nigeria wants their cultural heritages returned from Germany, and Egypt wants the Rosetta Stone back. Sure—there have been demands before, and in many cases (if not most) they’ve always been there, but now the subaltern seems able to find audiences willing to entertain their demands.
In Drunken Master II, before Wong ended up with the seal, it was in the process of being skirted to England in an act of imperial looting. The MacGuffin is markedly more loaded in symbolic meaning than its MacGuffin-fattened blockbuster peers: the object, while being without technical function in the film’s context, represents colonial power grabs in a complex way, especially in anticipation of the Hong Kong “handover.” To the impatient and sort of dim Wong’s confusion, with full conviction Fu deems him a traitor on several occasions in their initial match, occurring on a train track underneath the cars. The ad hominem makes no sense until Wong discerns what the mystery object is.
And of course, Chan is at his damn finest. Even in the dubbed version I’ve seen (since the restored version hits theaters first), his bodily performance out-maneuvers the stiff English voice actor’s dry and uninspired cadence. One or two (maybe even three) of the fight scenes deserve a place in the all-time action pantheon. Of particular interest is his final fight with John (Ken Lo), Chan’s real-life bodyguard and one of his only peers in stunt coordination. The fight takes place in a British-owned factory, where boxes meant for steel shipment cover up the UK’s true conniving motives of artifact looting. The setting allows for the fight to carry a greater, and more subtle, political weight than a typical Bond-like third act final fight: John (Ken Lo) is not white, but Chinese (though Lo is Cambodian)—yet, in an act of false consciousness, he fights on behalf of the colonial regime and lands a life-altering blow on the Drunken Master (at least, in some versions).
Kung Fu lover or not, don’t miss out on what could be your only chance to catch this on the big screen. (And don’t worry: you don’t need to see the first one.)
The Legend of Drunken Master / Drunken Master II
dir. Lau Kar-leung
Playing at Brattle Theatre on Friday, Sept 23 and Saturday, Sept 24 in the original, restored Cantonese version with English subtitles for the first time.