The damnedest thing happened while I watched Twilight Time’s recent Blu-ray release of Yuen Woo-ping’s seminal kung fu classic Drunken Master (1978) the other night with my best friend Greg. For whatever reason, the audio channel kept switching between the original Cantonese audio and the English dub. Conversations or fight scenes would begin in Cantonese only to switch to the nasally, whiny American voice-overs and back again without any rhyme or reason. After some checking, we found that all of the audio tracks were the same mixed Cantonese/English one. What we didn’t know was that this was intentional: there were missing audio elements from the copies used for Twilight’s Blu-ray transfer, so they were forced to create a soundtrack with bits and pieces from both languages. But it was a Friday night at the end of a long workweek, so we shrugged, turned on the English subtitles, and went to town on boxes of take-out dumplings and noodles as we enjoyed one of the films that made Jackie Chan an international superstar.
After a while, Greg leaned over to me and said that this was one of the greatest things he’d ever seen.
“I won’t lie, I want ALL of my kung fu movies to be like this from now on,” I joked.
“Forget kung fu, I want ALL my movies to be like this,” he fired back.
Yes, there was more than a hint of sarcasm in our voices. But after mentally synching with the bizarre fluctuations, the faulty audio track grew on me. It was as if I was simultaneously witnessing two different realities of Drunken Master: the unaltered Cantonese original and the campy English version shown all over the West, spreading the gospel of wuxia cinema and Jackie Chan. And what a gospel! The stern seriousness of Bruce Lee and his imitators abandoned in favor of manic slapstick; the rock’em sock’em chaos of Buster Keaton made manifest in ancient China; the bone-shattering elasticity and indestructibility of a man who seemed less human being than cartoon character.
It was the birth of a new legend. And it’s thanks to Drunken Master and its sister film Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow that we have it in the first place. Both were released months apart in 1978. Both shared the same director and most of the same supporting casts. Both centered on outclassed, naive fighters who become masters at kung fu with the help of odd, eccentric teachers played by the ancient yet sprightly Yuen Siu-tien. Both are menaced by evil, cold-blooded killers played by the cruelly visaged Hwang Jang-lee. And both established Jackie Chan as Hong Kong’s biggest movie star. He had labored in their studio system for years, being pushed by producers as the successor to Bruce Lee following his untimely death. But it was only with these two films that Jackie became the clown prince of kung fu comedy. It was a stroke of genius for Twilight Time to release them both as a Blu-ray double feature. And even with the eccentric audio track, it’s a worthy purchase. In fact, the broken audio track might make it indispensable.
Because the films are so similar, it’s difficult to explain the differences between them without firing off identical sounding plot synopses. But if I had to establish the main difference between the two, it’s that Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is about a good man brought high and Drunken Master is about a bad man brought low. In the former, Chan plays Chien Fu, an orphan who works as a janitor in a kung fu school run by tyrannical teachers who literally and figuratively use him as a punching bag. Through his training with an old beggar named Pai Cheng-Tien (Yuen), he gains confidence, bests the abusive teachers, invents a new style of martial arts, and defeats a wicked clan of fighters dedicated to the eradication of practitioners of Snake-style kung fu—the very same style taught by Cheng-Tien. But in Drunken Master, Chan plays Wong Fei-hung, the headstrong and spoiled son of a wealthy, well-to-do martial artist. To curb his arrogance, Wong’s father forces him to undertake the tutelage of Beggar So (Yuen), an old drunkard who masks his near super-human abilities with his intoxicated, debauched appearance and behavior. Through Beggar So’s nightmarish training, Wong is humbled, learns the secret techniques of Drunken Boxing, and saves his father from assassination.
Choosing the favorite between the two is a fool’s errand. But Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow seems to play up the comedy and storytelling while Drunken Master focused primarily on the actual fighting. Which one you watch depends entirely on what mood you’re in. But regardless, both films are repositories of master-class fight choreography and gut-busting comedy.
Thinking back on the kung fu genre, I’m shocked to realize I can’t think of very many Jackie Chan imitators. I’m sure they exist, but to my knowledge none have made the leap to the West quite like Jackie. In the meantime, we’ve experienced a new glut of steely, hard-nosed Bruce Lee types who care more about inner intensity and outward stoicism than Chan-like playfulness and clumsiness. Perhaps Jackie did his shtick too well; anybody attempting something similar would be accused a counterfeiter, not a student or admirer. It’s not as if Jackie eased himself into it. In Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master we see the immediate birth, codification, and immortalization of a style and character uniquely his own. Hard to believe he’s managed to keep it up for over 40 years.