19 Jul Come Drink With Me Review by Silver Emulsion Film Reviews
Come Drink With Me is widely regarded as the kung fu movie that kick-started the martial arts genre as we know it. At the time of its release, the Shaw Brothers studio was only a few months into their new direction of producing color martial arts films. They looked to add another gem to their arsenal of production: films focused on delivering action along with the high-quality production value already associated with the studio. Come Drink With Me was not the first of these films released, but it is the one that made people sit up and take notice. Cheng Pei-Pei became an instant star and a great asset to the studio, while director King Hu left to independently produce films in Taiwan in order to secure complete creative control over his future works.
While I can’t say exactly why this film was such a big hit 1960s Hong Kong, I can see why it remains an effective piece of work from one of the genre’s greatest and most visionary directors. King Hu liberally combines the Japanese samurai film with the ideas of the Chinese wuxia heroes in an unflinching, roller coaster of tension that is unlike anything else produced by the Shaw studio at the time (and probably, all of Hong Kong). This focus on playing with tension is a hallmark of King Hu’s style that would only improve in his later films (such as Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen). The structure of the film is built with the express purpose of quickly establishing the wuxia world and its tense mortality, and it’s this quality that makes me love the film more with each re-watch.
The opening scene defines the villains and their willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal. They mercilessly slaughter an entire company of guards with ease; Ku Feng even chops off a man’s hand with nothing on his face but absolute glee. These men are clearly evil, powerful and confident in their abilities. They return to their hideout to feast after the slaughter, conversing about the next step of their plan while torturing their captive for information. As a group they are infallible and they know it… until someone mentions Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-Pei). According to them everything willgo to plan as long as Golden Swallow doesn’t show up. They’re all scared of this fearsome hero, and thus, within a few seconds, the extreme martial skill and formidable spirit of Golden Swallow is communicated to the audience.
Cheng Pei-Pei now appears in the film, arriving in town and settling into the inn. The tension is thick and we’re dying to see the inevitable clash between the two factions. Her character’s reputation has been established, but if Cheng cannot follow through with an equally strong performance, it would all be for naught. Thankfully, she was ready for the spotlight, and she turned in a career-making performance that made sure everyone knew how ferocious and intense she could be. The confrontation in the inn, perhaps the most iconic and copied element of the film, is a symphony of tension. We’re aware of the bandits’ abilities, we’ve been told that Golden Swallow is even better, but now the bandits test her and we all learn together that she has the reputation for a reason (and that she’s even better than we’ve been led to believe). This type of storytelling efficiency keeps the film entertaining and relevant as the years pass.
The action is similarly efficient, resembling samurai films more than the complex battles generally expected from the kung fu genre. Some of this is attributable to the era and the infancy of screen choreography, but there also seems to be intent behind the brevity of the action. King Hu allows us to peer into the martial world, but he doesn’t offer much of a visceral experience. The strikes are strong and precise, usually killing in a single blow, and the posing before and after is distinctly Japanese. Often the blows themselves are obscured and so quick that we can’t quite comprehend them. Since this doesn’t necessarily reflect the other Shaw films of the period, I interpret this as a choice by King Hu. The highly skilled actions of the combatants are not easily understood by the layperson in the audience; the movements are fast and obscured, while the resulting posing and death throes are a stark contrast. Wong Kar-Wai would later use a similar technique to deliver the action in his remarkable 1994 wuxia, Ashes of Time.
Many of these early Shaw Brothers wuxias still exhibit a heavy influence from the Huangmei operas of the previous years, including many songs meant to communicate the characters’ feelings and move the story forward some. The key distinction is that in the early wuxias the characters do not burst into song. Instead, the music plays over the film as the character struggles with their inner turmoil as they traverse the landscape. There are songs in Come Drink With Me, but they are used in a markedly different manner than this. Here they are both a comedic release of the tension, and a storytelling device to communicate pertinent information to the audience and the characters alike. They are used with purpose, not to make up for a lack of storytelling skill or to bridge a gap between two genres; King Hu deploys them as just another weapon in his arsenal.
Come Drink With Me is a powerhouse wuxia from director King Hu, but like Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman from the following year, it’s important to note that they are not typical representations of the Shaw Brothers wuxia films of this era. They are exceptions to the rule, forging new paths with their originality and vision. They stood out from the pack and made a name for themselves (and their directors and stars) where other films did not. Thanks to the wonderful restoration efforts of Celestial Pictures we have the opportunity to delve deeper into the catalog, but the imitators of Come Drink With Me imitated it for a reason. It is a stone-cold, quintessential wuxia that deserves all the praise and attention it has received over the years.