Review for Drunken Master
Now this is a special title for me. I do believe that Drunken Master was the very first, genuine kung-fu movie that I watched. Up until that point, I had maybe seen David Carradine in Kung-fu which very much isn’t the same thing, although our primary school seemed to think it was, when they try to ban children from watching it once people started karate chopping each other in the playground. I know Drunken Master is the first Hong Kong action movie that I watched because I never taped it. I either saw it on TV, or I borrowed a pirate VHS copy from a friend, but it never resided in my own collection. That’s because thereafter, I would tape anything with Jackie Chan in that was broadcast on TV, films like Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Armour of God, Wheels on Meals, Cannonball Run 2. I didn’t discriminate. During my teens, Jackie Chan was synonymous with kung-fu, and I had to see it all. Therefore, the absence of Drunken Master among my carefully labelled VHS tapes implies that it was the very first experience I had with JC, igniting the obsession.
Of course that doesn’t explain why I never got Drunken Master on DVD, once I learned that Hong Kong Legends made my obsession pale into insignificance. The fact of the matter is that Drunken Master never got the best treatment on home video, released in cut versions, missing the original Cantonese audio, and even though the HKL release was as complete as possible, it came with a Mandarin dub, and the original aspect ratio was lost, with the image cropped to fit a 16:9 screen. I’m an original aspect ratio nut, which is why I never partook of HKL’s Drunken Master, or Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow come to think of it. I’ve long hoped for a better release. I never expected that it would come out on Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema Label. This promises to be very good indeed.
Wong Fei-hung may have become a venerated legend, but as a martial arts student in his father’s school, he was a lazy, arrogant prankster who was always getting into trouble. One prank too many forces his father to take disciplinary action, to send his wayward son to learn from Beggar So, who has a reputation for doing more damage to his students than educating them. But Beggar So has some serious skills to impart, especially after he’s had a few jugs of rice wine. Wong Fei-hung will have to be an ace student, as his father’s been targeted by an assassin.
Drunken Master gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p presentation on this disc, and it is probably as good as you can get, with a clean, stable, and pristine print. It’s been given a 4k restoration, and that certainly tells in the discrete layer of film grain, the odd bit of filmic flicker. It is very enjoyable to watch, bringing across the fantastic fight choreography, stunts and action with clarity. But then there is the source material, and Drunken Master certainly looks its age, there’s an overall softness to the image, a comparatively lower level of detail, and you’ll be wishing for a time machine to go back and tell the camera operator to keep an eye on the focus, which definitely drifts more than once.
You have the original Cantonese dub, the Mandarin dub, and an English dub, all in PCM 1.0 format as reflecting the original theatrical presentations (no HKL style 5.1 up-mixes here). The original English dub was meant to be on this disc, but rights issues prevented that from happening, although the dub we do get is even more excruciating than the usual dubs for Hong Kong cinema. I think they got Bernard Bresslaw to dub Jackie Chan. You have the choice between English subtitles for the Cantonese track, English subtitles for the Mandarin track, HOH dubtitles for the English track, and the original theatrical subtitles, with typos and grammatical errors intact. The reason for the different subtitles for the Mandarin track is because it is incomplete, and parts of the film have the English dub instead. This is odd, as apparently the Hong Kong Legends release of Drunken Master was full length, and its Mandarin track was complete, or so I believe.
I went with the Cantonese audio, and it’s not too bad, clear and consistent throughout, with no tinniness, and getting the action and dialogue across without significant issue. There are moments when you can hear a distortion under the track, particularly a low buzz towards the end of the film, but in a film of this vintage, and given Hong Kong cinema’s then lackadaisical attitude to film preservation, we have to consider ourselves lucky to get Drunken Master in this good a condition at all. The English for Cantonese subtitles are timed accurately and are free of typos.
The disc boots quickly to a static menu screen and you get a decent selection of extra features.
The audio commentary from Ric Meyers and Jeff Yang dates from a 2002 DVD release of the film, but is still a nice track to listen to, detailed and informative.
The Jackie Chan interview lasts 21:08 and is in 1080i format, dating from 2013. Judging by the odd snippet of Japanese, it must come from the Japanese Blu-ray release of Drunken Master (they also released Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow there).
Gareth Evans, director of the Raid pops in for 21:24 1080p to talk about how Jackie Chan and indeed Drunken Master have influenced his career.
Tony Rayns offers a talking heads piece on Hong Kong cinema with respect to Jackie Chan, Yuen Woo-Ping and Drunken Master. This lasts 41:36 1080p and is well worth watching.
Ng See-Yuen, the writer-producer of Drunken Master is interviewed for 14:05 about his career. This is presented in 1080i, but is obviously a VHS upscale, suggesting quite the vintage featurette. The audio quality on this isn’t too great either, and sadly subtitles are lacking for this and all English language extras.
The Deleted Scene 1:48 1080p offers some more training montage.
The Original Theatrical Trailer lasts 4:27, and is joined by a Music Promo 1:29, and a Kicking Showcase 1:34. These are all in 1080p.
Finally there is a 20-page booklet with an essay in the film from Michael Brooke, and poster art.
If Drunken Master was a watershed movie for me, opening my eyes to a whole new cinema genre, it was even more so for Jackie Chan, turning him from a 3rd rate Bruce Lee wannabe, to an action movie superstar. Up till that point, following a handful of flops like Shaolin Wooden Men, and New Fist of Fury, he had only had one hit, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, the first movie to take advantage of Jackie Chan’s comic talents, and also directed by Yuen Woo-ping. Drunken Master, the follow up to that film, cemented his talents, and proved that he wasn’t just a one hit wonder.
It is certainly a joy to have a classic Jackie Chan film on Blu-ray though, as so few of his early films, or indeed even his prolific Golden Harvest output, classics like Police Story and Project A have made it to legitimate Blu-ray. Hopefully this is the start of a trend, as those movies deserve to be revisited. As for Drunken Master, I’m feeling curiously conflicted about it. Coming from the hind-end of the seventies, it is almost a typical kung-fu feature of the era. You have your kung-fu schools, you have your wayward hero, you have training at the hands of an outsider, and you eventually have the hero expressing all that he has learnt against a serious villain at the climax of the film. On paper, there’s little to differentiate Drunken Master from most other martial arts movies of the era, other than the main character being the venerated Wong Fei-hung, and more of a literary bent to the script. The difference is all on screen, Jackie Chan’s comic talents, and Yuen Woo-ping’s action choreography. The fight sequences in Drunken Master are inventive and exhilarating while the comic touch makes for an interesting characterisation of the young Wong Fei-Hung.
Of course after Drunken Master, every other kung-fu movie from Hong Kong was an action comedy, making stars of Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao as well as Jackie Chan, a new template for a genre of cinema. The humour would become richer, the action more breathtaking, the stunts increasingly suicidal, but Drunken Master was one of the first, if not the first. It was the one that broke the mould, created new templates. It was one of the first times that we saw the mischievous, prankster hero, the young know it all that would have to be taken down a peg, have his confidence shattered before he could learn new ways at the feet of a venerable master. Only the venerable master cliché has been subverted as well, with the unlikely figure of a beggar the one to impart his kung fu knowledge, and a drunkard at that. And with the exception of the first encounter with the villain, and the final climactic battle, all of the fight sequences are played with an eye for the comedy. These are fight sequences that you revel in, that you watch to be entertained, to appreciate the artistry and the talents of those taking part, and with the long takes and minimum of editing, you really do have to appreciate it.
I have definitely felt the absence of Drunken Master in my life, having shunned the previous DVD releases for lacking the Cantonese audio, or being in the wrong aspect ratio. All of that is remedied with this Blu-ray release, which looks and sounds as good as you can reasonably expect from a 1978 Hong Kong movie. There are plenty of other movies of its ilk that came after, wonderful kung-fu comedies, many of them aping its storyline and in some cases doing even better. But Drunken Master was practically the first; it opened the gates to what would come after, and even given all that, you still get to see Jackie Chan at the height of his powers, combined with the exquisite choreography and able direction of Yuen Woo-ping. This is a title worth having in your collection for those reasons if nothing else.