King Chuan (aka King Hu) | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin
The first wuxia film directed by King Hu (King Chuan, that’s Hu! #MildlyRacistHomophoneJoke), the success of which allowed him to make his next even-more-significant movies in the genre, Come Drink with Me sees a gang kidnap the governor’s son to use him as leverage to release their leader. Instead, the governor sends his daughter, Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei), to rescue her brother. She receives some help from local drunkard Fan Da-Pei (Yueh Hua), who may be more than he’s letting on…
The film features good swordplay action, for the era — i.e. it’s not as tightly choreographed as you’d expect today. There’s a mix of huge free-for-all clashes, and Leone-esque long pauses followed by short bursts of violence. It also establishes Hu’s tendency to feature a strong female protagonist. Okay, she has to be saved by a man in the middle of the film, but at the climax she’s back kicking ass. To cement the point, it’s the female guards who fare best in the climactic battle, surviving long after most of the men have been slaughtered.
For all the fun, the story gets derailed a bit halfway through. Revealing that Fan Da-Pei is not just a drunk but actually an awesome fighter is okay — the groundwork is laid — but shifting the focus on to him and his old rivalry, which springs up out of nowhere two-thirds of the way through, isn’t good. Even the final duel is based on this last-minute subplot. It feels like a late-in-the-day addition designed to add a one-on-one aspect to a climax that would otherwise be about two ‘armies’ duking it out.
But this is a structural niggle, really. There’s so much else to enjoy — not just the action, but some amusing scenes, engaging characters, strikingly brutal villains (they not only kill a child (you wouldn’t get that in most movies) but they do it for no particular reason), and beautiful widescreen Technicolor cinematography — that it doesn’t grate too much.
Two points to be aware of when viewing. Firstly, when Golden Swallow arrives she’s pretending to be a man. This isn’t obvious to the viewer because she’s rather pretty, but all the characters behave as if she’s a fella nonetheless. Secondly, the version available on Netflix doesn’t bother to subtitle a couple of songs, which is frustrating because it’s clear from dialogue that they convey plot points. You get the gist, but it’s not as thorough as it should be. (Hopefully Film4’s screening will be more complete.)
I confess, I primarily watched Come Drink with Me because last year Masters of Cinema released Hu’s next film, Dragon Inn, and this week released the one he made after that, A Touch of Zen — I do like to watch things in order. Those follow-ups are regarded as seminal classics of the genre, a conversation Come Drink with Me doesn’t often come into. Whether that’s right or not, I’m glad to have been led to it, because it’s a very good swordplay movie in its own right. If Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen are indeed even better, they’re a very exciting prospect.
The UK TV premiere of Come Drink with Me is on Film4 tonight at 11:15pm.