DVD Review: Come Drink With Me
Come Drink With Me is a classic of martial arts cinema finally available on a proper DVD here in North America thanks to Dragon Dynasty’s Shaw Brothers Classics Collection. Directed by legendary Hong Kong/Taiwan filmmaker King Hu, it marked a huge leap forward in the evolution of kung fu movies, and is probably most notable to contemporary audiences as the spiritual ancestor of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
King Hu died at age 65 in 1997 as one of the most revered filmmakers in Hong Kong martial arts movies, though he spent most of his career in Taiwan after banging out several classics of the genre in the ‘60s and ‘70s, beginning with Come Drink With Me in 1966 (he also won a technical prize at Cannes in 1975 for another martial arts film, A Touch of Zen). His films pioneered many conventions of the kung fu subgenre known as wuxia that have since become hallmarks of martial arts movies. (The more fantasy-based wuxia subgenre typically focuses on swordsmen and swordswomen with rigid codes of honour and superhuman powers; think of the difference between fantastic “wire fu” films like Crouching Tiger and Hero and more “realistic” kung fu movies like, say, Bruce Lee's or Jackie Chan's.)
I’d never seen Come Drink With Me before reviewing this new DVD, but I had read about it years ago when I was devouring as many books about Hong Kong cinema that I could find. So when I heard about the movie’s restoration for DVD, I was excited to see it at last to find out what the fuss was all about. The fuss, as it turns out, was well deserved. Come Drink With Me is a pretty remarkable piece of work, particularly considering its age. The story is nothing special – a government official is kidnapped by bandits demanding the release of their own captured comrades, and the official’s sister, dubbed Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei), is sent to get him back – but the action is where this film shines.
The first thing I noticed was that Come Drink With Me doesn’t feature the typically stilted martial arts choreography I’ve come to associate with older kung fu movies, but rather a far more stylized, almost dance-like grace to it. (Hu was a big fan of traditional Peking Opera, and it influenced his martial arts movies in a big way.) Many of the fights are clearly influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, with fighters striking dramatic poses and squaring off for several tense seconds before either combatant strikes. This technique allows Hu to really ramp up the tension in several scenes, especially in the brilliant fight in the inn near the beginning.
The other thing that really struck me about the film as just how much of an influence it was on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I knew Ang Lee was a huge fan of King Hu and the wuxia genre (going so far as to cast Cheng Pei-pei as the villainous Jade Fox 30-plus years later), but two of Crouching Tiger’s most memorable sequences are direct homages to this film: the aforementioned inn fight where Cheng faces off against several opponents (echoed by Zhang Ziyi’s character kicking the asses of an entire inn full of fighters – she even does so disguised as a man, as Pei-pei does in Come Drink With Me), and a chase across rooftops at night, one of Crouching Tiger’s most famous scenes. Ang Lee’s film, made decades later, obviously benefits from technical advances (particularly the rooftop chase scene; the Crouching Tiger version rightly blew many a mind when the film came out), but King Hu manages to impress with traditional camera tricks instead of wires and CGI.
The film is also just beautiful to look at; King Hu (a former set decorator) lovingly shoots all the sets and locales with a clear eye for composition and detail, and the new DVD features some incredible restoration. If you didn’t know you were watching a 42-year old film, you’d hardly guess it to look at it. One thing I did notice about the DVD’s audio tracks was that the English-dubbed track (in 5.1 surround) seems to have not only cheesier dialogue, but cheesier music as well, filled with over-the-top flourishes clearly intended for grindhouse audiences. The music on the Cantonese track (available only in mono) is much more atmospheric and more evocative of Peking Opera and Kurosawa samurai movies than the ‘70s-style exploitation vibe on the English track.
Overall I was quite impressed with Come Drink With Me. Fans of martial arts movies will be delighted to see a true classic finally available on DVD, and more casual fans can get a look at where the genre took a great leap forward.
As with all the Dragon Dynasty DVDs, Come Drink With Me comes with a nice bunch of extras. First is the commentary on the film with Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan and star Cheng Pei-pei. As usual, Logan is a font of knowledge about virtually every aspect of the film and its legacy, and though Cheng’s English isn’t perfect, they have a nice rapport and he gets some cool little details out of her.
There’s also an interview with Hong Kong director Tsui Hark called ‘The King and I’ in which Tsui, a longtime King Hu fan who collaborated with him on one of his last films, 1990’s Swordsman (a disappointing effort meant to be Hu’s triumphant return to Hong Kong movies), in which the filmmaker recalls the impact Come Drink With Me made on its release as well as his personal stories of time spent with his late mentor. Tsui’s actually one of my favourite Hong King directors (despite having made some really bad movies, like the 1998 Jean-Claude Van Damme mess Knock Off, which followed the insanely ridiculous – and entertaining – Double Team, which teams JCVD with former NBA star Dennis Rodman; I could probably write a whole goddamn book about that movie, but I’m digressing here big time), so I really enjoyed watching him talk about the splash King Hu’s first martial arts movie made back in the day. He talks about how even back in ’66 he and his friends knew they were watching a paradigm shift in HK action movies, and I also got the impression he was something of a starstruck fanboy around King Hu himself, at least initially.
‘Come Speak With Me’ is an interview with star Cheng Pei-pei that runs a little over 15 minutes, where she explains that she had no martial arts training before filming Come Drink With Me, but was rather a dancer (a legacy taken up by other dancers-turned-asskickers Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zi-yi). There’s also an interview with Come Drink With Me’s leading man, Yueh Hua, who plays Golden Swallow’s perpetually-soused kung fu master. Like the Pei-pei interview, it’s pretty basic stuff, but at one point he pulls out the original Come Drink With Me script, which was sort of cool.
Also included is an interview with Bey Logan where he discusses Come Drink With Me in particular and King Hu’s legacy in general. It’s interesting stuff for genre fans like me, as Logan is essentially a walking encyclopedia of HK film knowledge, and he does an excellent job of putting the film in a historical context.
It’s great to see Come Drink With Me on DVD at last, and the fact that it’s on a gorgeously restored disc packed with extras only makes it better. Fans of kung fu films need to check this DVD out.
Labels: Asian cinema, Dragon Dynasty, DVD review, JCVD, martial arts