The answer to the age-old question: What film can I watch where Donnie Yen kicks ass AND steals a five year old’s lunch?…
You know that when it’s 2 a.m. in the morning on New Year’s Day and you want to watch something on Netflix, it had better be good. There is some awful dreck on it at times. Thankfully, I spotted Donnie Yen’s name in the search results and knew he would save me. I just wasn’t prepared for the retro cavalcade that went with it.
Being a Yuen Woo-ping film, it was a no brainer that I would watch this. But this is one of his films that he directed in the early 1980’s and isn’t like the Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or Drunken Master nor is it like his output in the 90’s like Iron Monkey or Red Wolf. While the DNA of Snake runs through Drunken Tai Chi and comes back in out again Iron Monkey, Drunken is a product of its time. Using 70’s style martial arts sequences and then oddly connected via 90’s style slapstick comedy pieces, the film could be seen as a hybrid.
Donnie Yen plays Ching Do, a well-to-do son of a salt merchant living in, I guess, 19th century China. It’s never said and frankly it wouldn’t detract from the fun if you did know. His father (Lee Kwan) also has an adopted son, played by Yuen Yat-Choh, who is a good boy and tries his best to please his father. Dad isn’t trying to be hard on his adopted son but he wants someone to help with the business and he wants Ching to educate himself and be a better class of man than his father. But Ching just wants to have fun and practises kung fu with his brother and also brings him in on his adventures. One day, he cheeses off the wrong person (Mandy Chan Chi-Man) and his father, played by Don Wong Tao, puts out a hit on the whole family. Due to some stroke of luck, Ching isn’t home when his father and brother are murdered by a silent assassin (Yuen Shun-Yi). Now he’s homeless, penniless and unknowingly in the sights of a killer. But help is on hand in the form of a puppeteer and his cotton duvet making wife.
Where this movie works is in the turning of each scene from farce to tragedy then back again. Yuen Woo-ping really walks a razor sharp line between fist flying action and some face palm smacking moments that you expect but still cringe at. One minute Ching is having fun on the streets with his brother, the next he’s reeling from the deaths of his family. All of this hinges on Donnie Yen. Yen had won a competition that Yuen had set up to find the next big star and was cast as the lead character for Drunken. Already a martial artist himself, Yen has successfully carved out a career over the years and it’s interesting to watch his debut and see him play a spoiled rich kid with some skills become a hardened, wiser martial artist who doesn’t need help to stand on his own two feet. Initially Yen seems to play the character straight with some sense of right and wrong. He knows that his father wants the best for him but still wants his brother to enjoy the things that he gets away with. When the two brothers are together, they really look like they are having fun and the interaction between Yen and Yuen is good without being ridiculous or trite. Unlike Western films where people who you don’t know are going to die usually have some kind of foreshadowing before the event, Yuen doesn’t even hint that the father and brother will perish. They just die and Ching Do is left in the shattered remains of his home with no clues as to the reason for their deaths. We as the audience know that the assassin has three people to kill but Yuen doesn’t tell his main character that until the last act.
One of the highlights of the film is Yuen Shun-Yi. As the Assassin, we are not supposed to like him but I found myself sympathising with him. He is a vicious and brutal fighter who kills with a ruthless manner but as a man who can’t provide for his son, I found the scenes where he visits his son in nursery school and builds him a rocking horse heartwarming and genuine. His son simply loves his father and doesn’t know what he does for a living. It never matters what your father does, just that you know that he’s there for you if you need him. Of course, this leaves a question: if this guy’s an assassin, how come he can’t afford to take care of his child? Didn’t being a killer for hire not pay very well back then? Yuen doesn’t bother to tell us, I suspect that’s because this would shatter the believability of the relationship with his son. And while Don Wong Tao is a great bad guy who deserves his comeuppance, the way he meets his end isn’t nearly as dignified as how the assassin ends his arc. It’s very tragic and just crowns the end of a series of deaths that really didn’t need to happen.
Where things get better or worse, depending on your view, is where Ching Do finds himself taken in by Tai Chi master and down-on-his-luck puppeteer (Yuen Cheung-yan) and his equally impressive wife (Lydia Shum Tin-Ha) after his family is killed. Now, Lydia Shum is credited on most websites in this role as Fatty but I’ll just credit her as Puppeteer’s Wife as that seems better. Anyways, Ching notices that the Puppeteer is quick on his feet and can easily take down him and three other guys without breaking a sweat. After he somehow wrecks the Puppet stage, he offers to work off the debt in the Puppeteer’s home. Of course, within ten seconds he has trashed the living room and as a result, the old man is doing his job for him. The wife was seen earlier in the film and for my money she had a much better intro than how her character is developed. While I thought she was very funny in all her scenes, they tended to go on way too long and I thought the same of the Puppeteer’s. The jokes are fine and all but even I had started to be worn down by them. The Puppeteer’s house scenes bridge the second and final acts together and they help ground Donnie’s performance as it comes full circle. For all my complaint about the slapstick, that’s what’s important at this junction for the film. The highlight of all of this, as well as the comedy, are the Tai Chi training scenes where Donnie Yen gets better and better at revealing his skill set that he develops in the film. First time I’ve ever thought this but say you’re a good martial artist making your screen debut. How hard do you have to try to suppress those skills and try and convince us that you don’t know everything or at least won’t until the end of the final act.
Despite having a weird second act that seems to ignore the facts of the first, the level of kung fu is sufficient to rescue all from the fire. Yuen Woo-ping brings his A-Game to the affair and makes this a companion piece in execution to Drunken Master with Jackie Chan. One thing that I found completely bizarre at times was the use of Western music hits mixed in as traditional Chinese music. It’s really jarring to listen to the theme from Flashdance playing during a puppet show with music from 19th Century China. Stick it out and you’ll get an entertaining action comedy with enough retro cheese to have a sandwich with.
Drunken Tai Chi is currently available to stream on Netflix UK.
Home media details
Distributor: Eastern Heroes (UK)
Edition: DVD (2002)
Eastern Heroes put this out in the early 2000’s and if that sounds bad, it’s because it is. If I had to take a chance, run with the Joy Sales DVD from Hong Kong. It’s out of print but can still be found online. Netflix UK has this in their catalogue for the time being and it is thankfully in Cantonese, I think. No dub but given the films age, I wouldn’t want to listen to it even if they did have one.
(Editor: The transfer on the Eastern Heroes disc is… okay. Bizarrely, the Cantonese soundtrack is provided, along with an English dub, but with NO English subtitles at all!)