the release of ScarJo’s Lucy looming,
we can expect the publicity campaign to wax rhapsodic about the significance of
a female action hero. Of course, Michelle Yeoh has been kicking butt and
carrying action films for decades. So has Angela Mao. Cheng Pei-pei also did it
before Johansson and did it far better in King Hu’s Shaw Brothers classic, Come Drink with Me (trailer here), which screens
during BAM Cinématek’s retrospective, All Hail the King: the Films of King Hu.
Drink would be Hu’s
definitive film for legendary producer Run Run Shaw, but also his last. Furthermore,
it introduces the first of Hu’s many strong woman protagonists: Golden Swallow,
the daughter of the scrupulously just provincial governor. A gang of outlaws
has abducted her brother, expecting to exchange her for a colleague due to be
executed for his crimes. Instead, the old man dispatches Golden Swallow to
recover her brother and dispense some justice.
of-sort of disguised as a man, Golden Swallow marches into the bandit’s
favorite tavern, looking for trouble. They try to oblige, but she far outclasses
mere henchmen. Needless to say, they vow to return, with their boss, Jade-Faced
Tiger to continue the “negotiations.” To make things fairer, she will make a
secret ally in Drunken Cat, the local lush, who is considerably more dangerous
than his easygoing façade would suggest.
Come Drink is hardly the
most complex wuxia story ever filmed, but it delivers several striking action
sequences. Indeed, the fight scenes are vintage Hu, as deeply influenced by
ballet as martial arts. It is not hard to gather why Golden Swallow’s exploits
are often identified as a forerunner to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It is also easy to see how it
launched Cheng Pei-pei to overnight superstardom. She has poise, presence, and
all kind of moves. (It is hard to fathom mistaking her for a man, but that is a
genre convention we just have to go along with.) Even though he sings and
clowns as Drunken Cat, Yueh Hua more than holds up his end, bringing to mind Donnie
Yen with his earnestly likable badassery.
fact, there is something appealing about Golden Sparrow being her family’s
designated action figure. She is impressive, but not super-heroic. Both she and
Drunken Cat have their physical and emotional vulnerabilities, but they demonstrate
humanist virtues as well.
Thanks to Hu’s mystical trappings and striking
backdrops, Come Drink With Me easily
ranks amongst the higher end of Shaw Brothers productions. Nor can anyone argue
with Cheng’s iconic work as Golden Swallow. A briskly paced tale of good versus
the corrupt, Come Drink With Me is a
film all wuxia connoisseurs should catch up with eventually. Highly
recommended, it screens this Sunday (6/8) at BAM as part of their King Hu retrospective.
Labels: BAM, Cheng Pei-pei, King Hu, Martial arts cinema, Shaw Brothers