At the turn of the last century, impetuous martial arts hero Wong Fei Hung (Jackie Chan) smuggles a valuable ginseng root aboard a train bound from China to Hong Kong, so his sagely and stoical father, Wong Kei Ying (Shaw Brothers legend Ti Lung), won't have to pay any import tax. Unfortunately, the contraband root gets switched with an identical package holding an even more valuable imperial seal smuggled by Chinese gangsters in league with unscrupulous Europeans. Pursuing patriot General Fu (Lau Kar-Leung) promptly mistakes Wong for a traitor. They engage in a breathtaking bout in the cramped confines under the train where the old man wields spectacular spear skills against Wong's dynamic "drunken boxing."
Back in Hong Kong, whilst helping his feisty young stepmother (Anita Mui) hide her gambling debts from his disapproving father, Wong is stalked by more sharp-suited gangsters out to retrieve the seal. When they threaten his step-mom, Wong quaffs a bevy of beverages and gives the evildoers a sound thrashing. Enraged by his son's alcohol-fuelled anarchy, Wong Senior makes the young master swear off drunken boxing forever. It is a promise Wong seems predestined not to keep. When General Fu re-emerges on the scene, Wong and his friends learn the European smugglers are running a secret slave labour camp intent on exporting more stolen Chinese curios for huge profits. So Wong leaps into action, fighting his way through overwhelming odds before a face off against a dapper, but super-skilled kung fu kicker (Ken Lo, Jackie's real-life bodyguard).
When Once Upon a Time in China (1991) sparked a huge resurgence in period kung fu films, Jackie Chan responded with this outstanding sequel to one of his first breakthrough hits: Drunken Master (1978). In fact the director of that kung fu classic, Yuen Woo Ping, had already made a sequel many years ago, Dance of the Drunken Mantis (1979) which, while a fine film in its own right, did not star Jackie and thus languished in obscurity in the wake of the later, big-budget Golden Harvest production. Jackie mounted Drunken Master II as his riposte to the new generation of martial arts stars including Jet Li and Donnie Yen whose films seemed over reliant on wire-work and camera trickery. By contrast, the clown prince of kung fu unleashed some of the most frenzied and physically exhausting fight sequences ever seen onscreen, a feat all the more remarkable considering he was by now a middle-aged man. For many fans Drunken Master II remains simply the greatest kung fu film ever made.
To assist Jackie in realising his grand vision, Golden Harvest paired him with Shaw Brothers veteran Liu Chia-liang (billed here under his Cantonese name: Lau Kar Leung), who besides being descended from students of the real Wong Fei Hung, had conceived and choreographed some of the most thematically and physically ambitious martial arts movies ever made: 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), The Martial Club (1981), My Young Auntie (1981), Heroes of the East (1979) (the only Hong Kong kung fu movie where nobody dies!), Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1983), the list goes on and on. However, Liu and Jackie clashed midway through the lengthy film shoot, not just over the design of the intricate action sequences (which Liu wanted done in the ornate, traditional manner of his Shaw Brothers days, whereas Jackie favoured the breakneck slapstick fu for which he was famed) but evidently the thematic direction of the story as well.
Early into the film, Liu's onscreen alter-ego chides young Wong for stooping to such a dirty, childish martial art as drunken boxing. Liu's later films err towards heavy-handed moralising. Here he seems to have envisioned the story as a call for wayward youth to ship up and see how Chinese culture and traditional values were being usurped by European invaders. General Fu calls on Wong to embrace social responsibility by showing due deference to his cultural heritage. Jackie Chan on the other hand, though his films are full of obedient young men paying respect to stern patriarchal figures, has a more irreverent attitude towards elder statesmen and penchant for slyly satirising traditional values. He evidently perceived the film as a portrait of the Fei Hung family, caught between incipient modernisation as embodied by the westernized gangsters and those strict values espoused by an old Chinese government, who don't even have that much relevance in Hong Kong anymore.
Liu choreographed the film's jaw-dropping centrepiece - a labyrinthine multilevel battle in a restaurant wherein Fu moves Wong like a buffed, bronzed marionette wielding a split-bamboo pole against fifty or so, hatchet-packing triad killers - then walked off the set, as Jackie seized the directorial reins and steered the film down his chosen route. Both were at pains to stress the parting was amicable - indeed Jackie allowed Liu to direct Drunken Master III (1994) and do just as he pleased, albeit without the star. Although Liu's abrupt departure left a few unfinished subplots (notably the early inclusion of superstar Andy Lau as a kind-hearted military leader, set up to play a bigger role than he eventually does), but on the whole his and Chan's opposing viewpoints merged together in a surprisingly coherent fashion. While Liu placed the action in a wider historical context, under Chan's direction the Wong family emerge less as heroic archetypes but as flawed human beings, prone to mistakes but with good intentions. Ti Lung and especially Anita Mui (who damn near steals the show with her ebullient comic performance) are the yin and yang of Wong Fei Hung's conscience, torn between noble intentions and base instincts. The elder Wong may be a stern disciplinarian (and brutalizes his grown son in one of the more shocking, yet honest scenes detailing traditional Chinese domestic life) but proves genuinely conflicted and caring, going so far as to renounce all his worldly possessions just to save his boy's life. His stepmother may be a lovable rogue and a manipulator of men, but remains movingly devoted to her husband and stepson. By the film's end, Wong Fei Hung realises no matter what mistakes he has made, his viewpoint is ultimately no less valid than that of his flawed parents. While he accepts their counsel, at the end of the day he can rely only on himself, which is core aspect of Jackie's own worldview.
The film climaxes with a legendary fight between Jackie and Ken Lo, involving repeated tumbles across a bed of hot coals (and this being a Jackie Chan film, no fakery involved!) and the quaffing of industrial strength alcohol allowing Wong to tap into a hitherto unheralded realm of uber drunken mastery and go completely bat-shit crazy with some truly demented athleticism. Although the film is essential viewing in its original Cantonese cut, the Miramax dub is one of the most respectful adaptations out there since it has Jackie re-dubbing his own vocals and features a fine score by Michael Windmacher as good as the original music by Wai Lap Wu.
Chinese director and actor and one of the most influential martial arts film-makers of the 1970s. Kar-Leung joined the Shaw Brothers studio in 1965 where he worked as an actor and fight choreographer, before making his directing debut in 1975 with the kung fu comedy The Spiritual Boxer. A series of martial arts classics followed, including 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Shaolin Mantis, Dirty Ho, Mad Monkey Kung Fu and My Young Auntie. Kar-Leung was a strong believer that fight sequences should be shot in single, wide shots to showcase the natural skill of the martial artists, which was at odds with those directors who prefered wirework and fast editing.
Kar-Leung continued to direct throughout the eighties, with period films like Shaolin Temple, starring a young Jet Li, and modern-day action flicks Tiger on the Beat and its sequel. In 1994, worked as fight arranger on Jackie Chan's Drunken Master II, but was controversially sacked from the production when his methods clashed with Chan's. In retaliation, he directed his own Drunken Master 3 later the same year. Kar-Leung's last film was 2002's old-fashioned Drunken Monkey, once more for Shaw Brothers.