Once upon a time in ancient China, bandits kidnap a local magistrate to threaten his father the governor into releasing their imprisoned leader. Having slaughtered the young magistrate’s entire entourage, the bandits boast they fear no man. Except the legendary hero Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei Pei), whom no-one knows is really a beautiful woman and also the victim’s sister. She is soon hot on their trail. At a country inn, Golden Swallow has a tense confrontation with a dozen or so of the armed gang, but receives some unexpected help from a jovial, wine-swigging, bedraggled beggar called Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua). Leading his merry band of beggar children, Drunken Cat performs lively song and dance numbers containing coded messages and breaks out some surprisingly superhuman kung fu moves. Golden Swallow comes to suspect there is more to this drunken doofus than meets the eye...
Arguably the most significant movie made by the legendary Shaw Brothers studio, Come Drink With Me was as important to the Chinese martial arts cinema as Stagecoach (1939) was to the Hollywood western. It both refined and defined its genre. Visionary writer-director King Hu set the standard for all the martial arts films that followed, few of which came close to matching his artistic ambitions. Before then most martial arts movies were hokey and theatrical and shot with a static camera. Come Drink With Me remains vibrant and intoxicating to this day, thanks to King Hu’s dynamic staging, fluid camerawork and crafting of vivid characters, plus a story whose quirky twists and turns have only lost their edge in years since because they have mimicked countless times. Every iconic scene you can think of in any wu xia (swordplay) movie was done here first.
Born in Beijing in 1931, King Ku studied Chinese history and opera at the National Art Insitute. Arriving in Hong Kong in 1949, he joined the Great Wall Film Company and worked his way through assorted jobs as proofreader, writer, actor and production designer before he struck up a friendship with Li Han-hsiang, who later became Shaw Brothers’ most celebrated auteur. At Shaw’s he scripted the hit musical Bride Napping (1960) then wrote and co-directed with Li the acclaimed Mandarin operetta The Story of Sue San (1962). The pair reteamed for The Love Eterne (1962) in which Hu also acted. Whereas Li Han-hsiang practiced a stately style that at its weakest was often painfully slow, Hu’s segments moved much faster. His films eventually became characterized by their protagonists perpetual motion - which in turn set the pace for every Hong Kong film that followed. Hu next wrote and directed the award-winning war drama Sons of Good Earth (1965) where he also played a leading role.
After Come Drink With Me, he left Shaw Brothers to form his own company in Taiwan to make increasingly ambitious and lyrical wu xia movies. His most famous remains A Touch of Zen (1971), the only martial arts film to win an award at Cannes, but the likes of Dragon Gate Inn (1967), The Valiant Ones (1975), and the three-hour fantasy epics he shot back to back in Korea: Raining in the Mountain (1979) and Legend on the Mountain (1979) are among the most critically acclaimed works in the genre. After several comedies in the Eighties, King Hu launched a troubled comeback with the nonetheless popular Swordsman (1990) co-directed by his admirers, the New Wave leading lights Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung (who has an early acting role in Come Drink With Me as a child monk who gets a poisoned arrow in his eye!), then bowed out with the period ghost story Painted Skin (1992) starring genre perennial Joey Wong and the director’s longtime friend and collaborator, Sammo Hung.
Too often in movies made before and since, kung fu scenes were simply an excuse for fancy fight choreography. King Hu used martial arts to create suspense sequences as fraught with tension as any Alfred Hitchcock thriller and, more remarkably, as a means to express his characters’ inner world. How they fight is an extension of who they are. The film plays like an oddball comedy of manners, hinging on the theme of delving beneath the surface to discern real truth and moral fibre. “Observe more and fight less”, remarks Drunken Cat to an awestruck Golden Swallow. The story grows in complexity when scheming villain Jade Faced Tiger (Chen Hung-Lieh) brings in corrupt but powerful Shaolin Abbot Liao Kung (Yeung Chi-Hing). It transpires, he once persuaded his master to adopt the young orphan Drunken Cat who after honing superior skills, withdrew disenchanted with the corrupt martial world. Yet his gratitude towards Liao Kung leaves him reluctant to fight back. Nevertheless, their spectacular climactic duel anticipates effects laden, pyrotechnic fantasies like Buddha’s Palm (1981), Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Storm Riders (1998).
Among its many innovations, the movie also pioneered the drunken hero who hides his heroism beneath a buffoonish exterior. Whereas Cheng Pei Pei is the epitome of grace and poise, Yueh Hua is like a jack-in-the-box. Gleefully manic as he leads his bedraggled beggar children -who include several soon-to-be famous faces among the boys and girls - in song and dance. In a career spanning thirty years and over ninety films, Yueh Hua was one of Shaw’s most versatile leading men, whether in comedy, action, horror, musicals, even softcore porn. He supposedly drank two bottles of Chinese wine before shooting a scene, to get into character. After his last role in the tepid Jackie Chan action-comedy Rumble in the Bronx (1995), Hua and his wife - sultry Shaw star Tanny Tien Ni - moved to Canada where he became chairman of the association of performing arts.
Some suspension of disbelief is required to accept that someone as clearly graceful and feminine as the achingly lovely Cheng Pei Pei could be mistaken for a man. Nevertheless, she commands the screen, especially during her celebrated swordfight at the inn. King Hu builds the tension till the moment she bursts into action aided by some charming stop-motion trickery. It becomes an explosion of cinematic joy. The film made the nineteen year old Pei Pei the studio’s top-ranking star and the era’s defining heroic swordswoman. Having trained as a ballerina for six years, Pei Pei joined a performing arts course run by Shaw Brothers and had earlier co-starred with Yueh Hua in the Monkey King fantasy, Princess Iron Fan (1966). After making her name with the landmark Come Drink With Me, she headlined some of the greatest swordplay films to hail from the studio: Dragon Swamp (1968), That Fiery Girl (1968), Shadow Whip (1970) among many, many others, though she also diversified her output with the pop musical Hong Kong Nocturne (1966) and spy movie Operation Lipstick (1966).
After her making her last swordplay epic for Shaw Brothers: The Lady Hermit (1971), Cheng Pei Pei retired to marry and raise a family in America. However, she returned several years later after divorce for some unremarkable movies at rival studio, Golden Harvest. In the Eighties she segued into character acting, including the acclaimed drama Painted Faces (1988) (a biopic about the childhood exploits of Jackie Chan and his fellow Peking Opera students), the wacky period comedy Flirting Scholar (1993) with Stephen Chow Sing-Chi, and the martial arts film Wing Chun (1994) opposite one of her successors as kung fu queen, Michelle Yeoh. But all this paled beside her role as the villainous Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), a piece of clever casting which won her a Hong Kong Film Award for best supporting actress.
Shaw Brothers followed Come Drink With Me with a sequel: Golden Swallow (1968) (not to be confused with the 1988 ghost story of the same name). Directed by kung fu fan-favourite Chang Cheh, this was a very different film, with a very different agenda.