Shaolin Sundays
Come Drink With Me
From the 36th Chamber to the Dragon Gate Inn, from the Crouching Tiger to the Drunken Master, Shaolin Sundays is a biweekly examination of kung fu films in all their various formats, from their heyday to the modern era

There is an aphorism that we are conditioned to believe is always true: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This is, of course, occasionally true (otherwise it probably wouldn’t be so powerful), but like most things it is far from universally applicable. I’ve been thinking a lot about that saying as it applies to kung fu movies. The initial application, it would seem, is that a kung fu movie is only as strong as its weakest set piece. This is one of those things that sounds like it should be true, but it doesn’t mesh with the way I think most people watch and talk about kung fu movies. In fact, it seems to me that a kung fu movie is, generally, as strong as its strongest set piece.

For the most part, people aren’t watching kung fu movies for their engrossing plots or their deeper thematic explorations. These things exist, and we will be digging into them from time to time here, but they are often beside the point. People watch kung fu for the kung fu. We watch these movies for the action sequences, the gorgeous fight choreography, and the inventiveness of the staging, setting, and shooting of various fights. So often, one incredible sequence is enough to sell a movie. If there is one excellent kung fu scene in a movie, it will be enough to get most fans talking about it and bringing others to watch it. Now, obviously, the more strong fight sequences, the better, and if a film manages to do something interesting with characters or thematic resonance along the way, that is ideal, but ultimately, what it all comes down to is how well the punches get thrown when the film is at its best.

Come Drink with Me has several virtuoso sequences but its strongest is absolutely enough to sell it, even if the film lacked all other charms (it doesn’t, and we’ll get to those in a bit). Early in the film, Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei, who would later play Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who has been tasked by her father, a general, with recovering her brother, who has been kidnapped by a local gang, walks into an inn. Much like the saloon sequence in any number of westerns, the inn holds a central place in kung fu mythology. The one in Come Drink with Me feels like the platonic form of this inn, and the fight sequence that takes place there is so breathtaking and exciting, its no wonder this sequence has become a staple of the genre. This sequence establishes Golden Swallow as a deadly warrior, sets up her signature fighting style, and declares she will be a threat to anyone who stands against her.

The action here is brilliantly paced, allowing stillness to accrue as much meaning as motion. Director King Hu cast Cheng for her history in ballet, and stages each fight sequence like a deadly dance. The fights are staged with a careful eye, shot beautifully to capture everything, and imbued with a realism not always seen in this genre (that realism does not extend to the bloodshed, which is of the standard splatter sort, and therefore also awesome).

After the Inn sequence, the film detours for a while, building the relationship between Golden Swallow and her “guardian angel,” a local beggar known to her only as Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua). The sequences between fight scenes could easily be filler, but Come Drink with Me is often completely charming. Drunken Cat and a band of children (possibly including a young Jackie Chan, though accounts differ on whether he actually appeared in the film) make their money by singing songs, and the musical sequences are clever, cute, and entirely disarming. Yueh gives a fleet, funny performance that can turn on a dime when he needs to be imposing, and he has excellent chemistry with Cheng, who reluctantly teams up with him. The film also has a terrific villain in the theatrical Jade Faced Tiger (Chan Hung-lit), who wears pancake makeup and favors a poison dart as his murder weapon.

From a plot perspective, the film leaves a lot to be desired. The story is basically an excuse to get us to the next fight sequence, and any complications in Golden Swallow’s efforts to arrange a prisoner exchange and free her brother mostly feel like they are shoe-horned in. Yet there is enough color in even the most expository of sequences to keep things moving along, and ultimately, that is the entire purpose of any scene in Come Drink with Me where no one is actively trying to kill anyone else.

The film is a stripped-down kung fu flick that runs on an engine of adrenaline and delivers every time it needs to. These characters don’t really have inner lives because the film doesn’t need them to. Golden Swallow isn’t tormented by her quest, nor is she romantically interested in Drunken Cat. She is just a warrior on a mission. The film begins with the impetus for that mission and ends once it is completed. There’s nothing else to see here, but then, there isn’t supposed to be. Come Drink with Me is invigorating from a pure action perspective; so long as you expect nothing more, you will not be disappointed. If a kung fu film is truly as strong as its strongest set piece (call this a working hypothesis, for the moment), Come Drink with Me is excellent. The action is stupendous, and when things slow down, as they inevitably must, there is enough going on that the film remains surprisingly enjoyable even when punches aren’t being thrown. With its title and its tone, Come Drink with Me invites you into its world, promising little and delivering exactly what you need.

Coming up on Shaolin Sundays:

9/29: Five Venoms

10/13: The Big Boss

10/27: Flag of Iron

11/10: Drunken Master

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