Originally presented in 3D, this is a martial arts action fantasy film directed by Yuen Woo-ping, starring Vincent Zhao and Andy On. This was Yuen Woo-ping’s first film in the director’s chair since Tai Chi Boxer in 1996.
Vincent Zhao plays the legendary “Su Can / Beggar So”, immortalised in the 1970’s by Yuen Woo-ping’s father, Yuen Siu-tien in the original “Drunken Master“. Zhao, who is often credited as Chiu Man-cheuk in his earlier films, is a former Chinese wushu champion, who is also proficient in Tai Chi. He was talent spotted by producer and director Corey Yuen whilst studying at the Beijing Sports University where Zhao was also a martial arts instructor. He is best known for taking over the role of Wong Fei-hung from Jet Li in the “Once Upon a Time in China” films, and for his heroic roles in the television serials of “Wong Fei-hung” and “Huo Yuanjia”.
Andy On stars as “Yuan Lie”, Su Can’s twisted step-brother. Andy On trained in martial arts with Nicky Li, of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, “Fist of Legend” bad guy Billy Chow, and with his good friend, actor and fight co-ordinator Philip Ng. Andy On is best known for his appearances in “New Police Story”, “Invisible Target”, “Zombie Fight Club”, “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” and “SPL II: A Time for Consequences”.
Award-winning Chinese actress Zhou Xun plays Su Can’s wife “Xiao Ying”. Hugely popular in mainland China, she has been called one of the “Four Dan Actresses”, a Chinese term referring to the four most bankable young actresses from Mainland China in the early 2000’s, that included Zhang Ziyi, Zhao Wei, and Xu Jinglei. In 2012, Zhou made her Hollywood debut in the Wachowski’s “Cloud Atlas”.
Taiwanese popstar Jay Chou appears as the “God of Wushu / Drunken God”. Chou’s fanbase in Asia is huge due to his music career. He sang the end theme for Jet Li‘s movie “Fearless“, and although not formally trained in martial arts, his dancing abilities have allowed him to pick up fight choreography for films such as “Kung Fu Dunk” and “The Green Hornet” with apparent ease.
Arguably the queen of Asian action cinema, Michelle Yeoh appears as “Sister Yu / Yu Shu Lien”, a wine-maker who gives Su Can a taste for life again. Michelle Yeoh has had an admirable career as a capable actress and action star, often performing her own stunts in films such as “Police Assassins”, “Police Story 3: Supercop“, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“, Reign of Assassins” and the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies”.
In what would be his final screen role, star of television’s “Kung Fu” and Bill from “Kill Bill”, David Carradine plays “Anthony”, a ruthless fixer of wrestling matches.
Eagle-eyed martial arts film fans will also spot cameos from Gordon Liu (“The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”) and Bryan Leung Ka-Yan (“Knockabout”), along with popular UFC fighter Cung Le. Taiwanese popstar Will Liu and wushu champion Jiang Luxia play a pair of deadly assassins.
In the late 19th Century Qing Dynasty, war hero Su Can rescues a prince in a daring raid on an enemy mountain fortress. The prince promises that the Emperor will make Su governor of Hu Bei Province. Su asks the prince to make his envious step-brother Yuan governor instead, so he can retire from military life and return home to his beloved wife and their newborn son. Su dreams of perfecting the art of wushu and of one day opening his own school.
Six years later, Yuan Lie returns from war consumed by the dark martial arts and armed with the deadly Five Venom Fist. Yuan attacks Su and his family as vengeance for a long and dark family history. Su and his wife barely escape with their lives, but their son is now held captive by an increasingly psychotic Yuan Lie. Over many long and difficult months, Su recovers from his injuries and hones his craft with the help of a mysterious Old Sage and his apprentice, Lord Wushu, a monk with incredible martial arts skills.
Eventually consumed by grief and alcohol, Su becomes a drunken beggar. It is only when his son is once again in danger, this time by Westerners out to shame the Chinese people, that an inebriated Su summons all his fighting skills to try and save the day, forging the legend of Drunken Boxing!
The action kicks off immediately with a spectacular raid by Su Can and his soldiers. There are lots of flashing and clashing broadsword blades, interspersed with arrows shooting at the screen. The sword fighting is raw and real rather than the pretty wushu-twirling style you might expect. Paradoxically, nearly every leap and spin is obviously performed on a wire. Vincent Zhao acquits himself well as a one-man killing machine be it with weapons, punches or kicks.
With the return of his vengeful step-brother, Su Can is ambushed by Will Liu and Jiang Luxia as a pair of assassins. Initially attacked by a lot of flying CGI darts, the action swiftly turns to the more familiar sword duelling of the wuxia genre. Yuen Woo-ping excels at this style, delivering a frantic fight using slow motion and wires only where absolutely appropriate. Jiang Luxia, a former real-life wushu champion, is especially good, using a mace as though it is a Jian (straight sword), but also using it as a cudgel. Su Can chases the assassins to a jetty by a rapid flowing river where his wife and son are being held captive by the wicked Yuan Lie. Su Can fights with determination and ferocity, but Yuan Lie literally has an iron shirt grafted to his body, as he spins and battles with deadly efficiency. Both actors have impressive punching and kicking skills, with bursts of combinations punctuated by an inevitable wire stunt.
As Su Can recovers from his encounter, he engages in some classic training sequences. He claws bark from trees with his bare hands, strengthens his grip with a special mechanical device, and performs handstand push ups on his fingertips. Whilst training one day, he sees the God of Wushu balancing on top of a tree with an Old Sage balancing on his head! And so begins a series of fantasy sequences using lots of wires and CGI as the hallucinating Su Can trains in various disciplines with the God of Wushu. The best of these is probably the cudgel versus cudgel sequence, although we also get to see the two-handed sword versus iron ring and hammer versus hammer! The dream-like setting and strange, strobing frame-rate of the filming can make these scenes look like a video game at times, but there are still some entertaining flourishes. As the increasingly dishevelled Su Can begins to master his training, we are finally treated to seeing him performing a Drunken Boxing form. This isn’t “The Eight Drunken Immortals” traditional style of Jackie Chan, but the fast and fluid competition wushu-style of movement.
Su Can eventually must confront Yuan Lie and attacks his residence armed with a Guandao. The two assassins are among the guards that Su Can must overcome before he finally goes toe-to-toe with Yuan Lie. This fight is among the best in the film as they smash their way through pots and vases, and even fight down a well-shaft!
The drunken fist is still saved for the last quarter of the film though. No respectable kung fu film is complete without a fight in a teahouse, and this one has the great premise of Drunken Boxer versus Drunken Boxer! The final fights of the film are reminiscent of Jet Li‘s “Fearless“, with Su Can using his drunken fist to fight three European wrestlers, to prove that the Chinese are not the “sick men of Asia”. These are probably the best shot fights of the movie, with the camera right in the heart of the action, following every move, but framed wide enough so you can see what is going on. The drunken fights are entertaining sequences, which promise a great deal, but they just can’t quite match the breathless fluidity of the fights from Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master II“.
For the final scenes, we see the fully fledged Beggar So performing his Drunken Form with the iron and silk elements of its grace and power. Beggar So Begins!
This film is quite a tough one to review. I was lucky enough to be in Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year release of this film, and there was quite a buzz about it. People were excited about the 3D effects and Yuen Woo-ping’s return to the director’s chair after a fourteen-year hiatus. Unfortunately, both those factors are the main flaws of this movie.
Yuen Woo-ping is arguably one of two or three of the greatest martial arts movie choreographers of all time. From “Drunken Master” to “Fearless“, “Iron Monkey” to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“, or “Fist of Legend” to the Hollywood blockbuster “The Matrix”, his ingenuity, invention and influence are undeniable.
Although he continued to work steadily as a choreographer between 1996’s “Tai Chi Boxer” and this film, it feels as though once he was given full control over a Chinese martial arts film again, he wanted to throw everything plus the kitchen sink into it. With the additional attraction of working in 3D and having CGI effects, everything also gets thrown out of the screen at nearly every opportunity in the action scenes! The end effect is that the rather obvious attempts at showing off the 3D spoil a lot of what is at times excellent and classic Yuen Woo-ping choreography. It didn’t look that great in 3D, and is of no benefit whatsoever to viewers of a standard DVD copy.
However, this is an epic story encompassing elements of the classics such as “The Five Deadly Venoms”, “Drunken Master“, “Journey to the West”, and even elements of one of Woo-ping’s later works, “Fearless“.
Vincent Zhao does a fine job as the hero whose life spirals downwards, but through his devotion to martial arts manages to cling on to become the hero once more. Some of the best scenes in the film belong to Zhao, especially when he is practicing his wushu forms and some of the tender moments with his wife and child. Equally adept in the acting and action departments is Andy On as the wicked villain of the piece. Jay Chou gives an entertaining performance and also impresses in the martial arts department, and of course Michelle Yeoh in a small supporting role, rarely disappoints. Although Jiang Luxia only has a small role as an assassin, she demonstrates the capacity to become perhaps the next big female Asian action star.
If the makers didn’t have access to the special effects and 3D and had tightened up the story a bit, this possibly could have been one of Yuen Woo-ping’s best works. Ignore the distractions of some of the effects driven choreography, be patient with the rather sporadic pacing of the story, and there is still a lot of action and some good performances to enjoy here. And who doesn’t enjoy watching a bit of drunken boxing?!
- This was one of David Carradine’s final performances and it was released posthumously.
- Released for Chinese New Year in 2010, this was originally promoted as “China’s first 3D film”. Due to the expense and time-consuming conversion process, only about twenty minutes of the film’s 115-minute running time was actually in 3D. Cinema audiences had to put on their 3D glasses for some of the 3D action scenes, and take them off for the rest of the film!
- Yuen Woo-ping has stated that the fight scene at Hukou Waterfall was one of the hardest he has ever filmed. He said “The safety issue for that scene was the biggest challenge of the whole movie. The landscape looks magnificent but is very dangerous. There was no chance for us to make any mistakes. We meticulously planned out the whole choreography and tested and rehearsed it many times before rolling the camera. We also double-wired our talent just to make sure they were completely safe. This fighting sequence took us 15 working days to complete.”
- The set for the opening action scene in the mountains broke an all-time record for the largest set ever built inside a Chinese filming studio.
- To prepare for his role, Vincent Zhao lost 9kgs in weight and did two months training in break-dancing as Yuen Woo-ping wanted him to have a more rhythmic and modern form of the drunken fist.