June 25, 2008

Shaw Brothers double-header: Come Drink with Me and Heroes of the East

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Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson

Rating (out of 5): Come Drink with Me (1966) ****
Rating (out of 5): Heroes of the East (1979) *****

Experts consider King Hu's Come Drink with Me a benchmark in Hong Kong martial arts filmmaking, and it has been cited as one of the sources for Ang Lee's knockoff hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And yet Come Drink with Me may come across as something of a disappointment, especially on first viewing. The action here is much slower and more careful than Hong Kong fans are used to, with combatants spending a great deal of time sizing each other up between blows, and because of this pace, the not-quite-logical plot comes a little too close to the forefront.

The beautiful Cheng Pei-pei stars as Golden Swallow, a girl in drag sent to negotiate the release of a kidnapped official (really her brother). She checks into an inn and proceeds to beat the stuffing out of a dozen attackers. A singing buffoon, Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua), who is really a kung fu master, helps her out. It turns out that Drunken Cat's former teacher is the leader of the bad guys, so we get the second-to-last showdown with Golden Swallow, then the major showdown with Drunken Cat. I would like to have seen Golden Swallow more in the foreground, rather than relying on Drunken Cat's help; she fights off an entire courtyard full of men, but takes a poison dart just as she escapes over the wall. Drunken Cat has to save her life. Regardless, she's still a breakthrough for tough, feminist characters. Cheng's performance has a dancer's grace and razor-sharp intensity; if her sword doesn't get you, her eyes certainly will. Yueh Hua is fine, too, but the movie belongs to Cheng. Thankfully, she returned in a sequel, Golden Swallow, a.k.a. The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick, hopefully soon to be released on DVD.

The 2008 Dragon Dynasty DVD (#27) comes with a commentary track by resident expert Bey Logan and star Cheng Pei-pei. In a cool little featurette master Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark remembers King Hu, alongside various interviews and other goodies.

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If Come Drink with Me seemed like a breakthrough, just get a look at Heroes of the East, a culturally sensitive film filled with dazzling battle sequences -- and no casualties. Gordon Liu stars as Tao, a Chinese man who agrees to an arranged marriage with a Japanese woman, Kuda (Yuko Mizuno). No meek and mild-mannered housewife, she quickly makes it clear that she intends to hang onto her own Japanese rituals in her new Chinese house. When she practices her martial arts, she cheerfully destroys the garden and annoys the neighbors. She disregards her husband's Chinese weapons, so he challenges her to a battle, which she loses. But she doesn't lose gracefully: she hurls dishes at the dinner table, then packs up and leaves for Japan. Tao then writes her a letter, but the letter is misunderstood as a challenge, and so seven Japanese masters of seven different martial arts arrive to fight him. Tao must figure out which Chinese methods he can use to effectively combat his opponents. But the cultural divide keeps entering into the equation.

When Tao wins a swordfight, his opponent offers his sword to Tao; ignorant of the custom, Tao refuses, thereby insulting his opponents further. In another sequence, Tao studies drunken boxing and adapts the technique into his own fighting style. But can he face the "sneaky, underhanded tricks" of the ninja? There's a concerted effort to acknowledge the cultural divide, which is fascinating. Amazingly, the Japanese warriors are treated -- more or less -- as actual human beings and not the usual sneering bad guys seen in most Chinese movies. (Although, given the country's history, this is understandable.) Director Lau Kar-leung (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Mad Monkey Kung Fu, etc.) emphasizes each battle over the outcome, and the result is dazzling and refreshing.

The Dragon Dynasty DVD comes with another Bey Logan commentary track, a tribute to Lau Kar-leung, an interview with Gordon Liu, an interesting little featurette about the weapons of China and Japan, and trailers.



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Posted by cphillips at June 25, 2008 4:43 PM
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