by HELEN GEIB
Director-choreographer Lau Kar-Leung also stars in Drunken Monkey as Man Biu, a master of Monkeyish Fist (I’m quoting the subtitles here) a/k/a Drunken Monkey Fist. Man is operations head for a security service and an honorable man. When he discovers his brother-in-arms and chief subordinate Pao is conniving with their boss Yui in opium smuggling, he is treacherously betrayed by Pao, set upon by Yui and the service’s foot soldiers, and barely escapes with his life.
One year later he is living in seclusion outside the city with his adoptive daughter Siu-Ma. Two young men eager to be instructed by Man in the martial arts seek him out, inadvertently disclosing his location to his enemies who had heretofore believed him to be dead. After another narrow escape, Man returns to exact his revenge with the aid of his disciples, now numbering three: Siu-Ma and the two young men, Tak and Ka-Yip.
That plot summary is accurate, but doesn’t convey the flavor of the film. Drunken Monkey is a fond compendium of the conventions of its Hong Kong cinema genre, the period-set kung fu movie. The homage starts with the characters and the story – and the loose story structure.
After the initial set-up to this story of betrayal and dishonor begetting violence and revenge, Man disappears from the film for a long stretch as the focus shifts to the boys and their family’s goofy comedy act. See, Ka-Yip is an artist obsessed with drawing a complete handbook to Monkeyish Fist kung fu. His great-uncle Tak (great-uncle and grand-nephew are the same age, supplying an ongoing “honor your elders” comedy routine, and address each other as Great Uncle and Great Nephew throughout) is fully on board with this project, even allowing his body to be posed in monkey-like weird contortions for hours on end as artist’s model. Mom gets into the spirit, Dad disapproves, and it goes on from there.
The tone largely settles down and the plot resumes when Tak and Ka-Yip stumble upon their idol, but comedy is never far from the surface. There are the requisite moments of heroic self-sacrifice and intense revenge-vowing too. The 1930s setting (with incongruous production design elements) and opium-running plot McGuffin allows the filmmakers to smuggle in (just a tiny bit of) social commentary on national honor, Anglo-American imperialism, and native martial arts traditions. And of course, the final show-down is preceded by an extended training sequence. This is a genre that likes to have it all.
Last but certainly not least, Drunken Monkey is about old-school kung fu fighting. Lau Kar-Leung is one of the genre’s big names from the 1960s and ‘70s for films like One-Armed Swordsman and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Wu Jing (who plays Tak; Tai Chi 2) is a trained martial artist with on-screen fight cred, and Gordon Liu (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin among many other “Shaolin” movies) appears in a supporting role as an honorable government agent.
In a nutshell, you can see what’s going on and it looks like the actors-fighters might actually know what they’re doing. The climactic fight especially is highly entertaining, with one master, three disciples, two villains, and numerous minions engaging in a lengthy, fluid battle engagement. The heroes assault the enemy hideout armed with… flasks and prevail over their opponents with poses like “monkey picks fruit.” It isn’t called Drunken Monkey Fist for nothing.
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