Film reviews: Wayang@Budiman presents Classic Wuxia - 'Come Drink with Me' & 'Dragon Inn'

"Shall we dance to you bitches' death?"

Ooh, wee. Look here. Another overdue ones. Good golly. Let's do a double review for yet another slot at Wayang@Budiman on February. What's wuxia you ask? A literary genre from China in which the characters wield swords to beat the crap out of each other. While both films are from the same director, the same genre, and the same starting point (both films' plot actually takes off from an inn), these films are not exactly related to each other. From what I have dug out, it seems that these films are said to be the best of all time for its genre and also one of the earliest ones made by a very influential wuxia director, where the latter had two remakes and a tribute. 

"Look ma, no balls!"

Maybe I have seen one or two wuxia films before I even knew what wuxia really is (I think I passingly watched Storm Riders and A Man Called Hero that one time) or even knew about a wuxia comic (it's the Malay translation Storm Riders' source material... but I didn't go into the details like the characters and the sword names and what not), so I was never like a follower of the genre or anything. Watching these pioneers was indeed quite the experience for me.
Come Drink with Me [大醉侠 (Dà Zuì Xiá)]  

Origin: Hong Kong · Language: Mandarin
Director: King Hu · Writers: King Hu, Yi Cheung
Genre: Wuxia · Release: April 7, 1966

Casts: Cheng Pei-Pei, Yueh Hua, Chan Hung-lit,
Yeung Chi-hit

More info: IMDb

This film is lead by Chin Pei-Pei as Golden Swallow, who was at the time an experienced dancer with no prior acting stints. It was a rather odd choice on the director's side, but when I saw the film, I get why she was chosen. The director was aiming to add some sort of 'poetic' look an feel to her fights, and she was definitely the right person to perform those, in addition to her adequate acting skills and likeable presence (these traits are also shared with her co-star Yueh Hua as Drunken Cat). For what it needs to be, which is a movie, I really like it. This is all thanks to its exaggerated yet graceful fight choreography with some elements of fantasy/mysticism and splashes of sweet-natured comedy, which is then balanced with intense moments courtesy of the remorseless Liao Kung (Yeung Chi-hit) and his henchmen headed by Jade Faced Tiger (Chang Hung-lit) and the final battle. Also, while it sort of appeals to feminists by making Golden Swallow an equally adept warrior as Drunken Cat, King Hu doesn't really shove that idea at all down the audiences' throats. I'd like to think that the director just don't give a shit about that and just went ahead in making a thoroughly entertaining picture!

Dragon Inn [龍門客棧 (Lóng Mén Kè Zhàn)]

Origin: Taiwan · Language: Mandarin
Director & writer: King Hu
Genre: Wuxia · Release: 1967

Lingfeng Shangguan, Chun Shih,
Ying Bai, Chien Tsao

More info: IMDb

In this one, the scope is bigger and more political but on highly truncated scale. Despite its intriguing premise and first impression, it could've benefited better as a war film that has its needlessly epic backstory to be nicely incorporated into the plot instead of this ensemble film that doesn't really give us the chance to thoroughly care about each of these characters due to their underdeveloped portrayals, and having mostly sloppy action sequences which is not as nicely planned as Come Drink with Me, and a funny yet sometimes out-of-place humour. Simply put, it's a bit of a letdown for a follow up. But I have to applaud the usage of music in this one; they are interestingly modeled akin to that of video games with clear stages: the greater the number of the enemy, the more intense the sounds get. I also like how something as simple as fatigue is used and utilised as the weakness of the protagonists' powerful enemy which leads to an exciting, yet over-the-top climactic battle.

Influence wise, the way the plot unfolds in both films somewhat reminded me of Spaghetti Westerns, but way more refined (especially for the latter film, where some people told me that Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight is strongly influenced by these films). And from the Q&A session after the screening, I found that wuxia's transition to the film medium is indeed impacted by the likes of samurai films from Japan, and when I relate to what I saw, I think the sword fights does look a little bit samurai-ish, but was given a little more artistic, Chinese stroke to it thanks to its choreography and traditional Chinese music. I guess this is also King Hu's way of giving the genre its own unique feel.

And that's pretty much it. It really is a nice proper introduction to the wuxia cinema in my book, and so far the lightest treat that PKAF had ever served.

P/S: Word on the street is the third movie made by King Hu is exquisite in terms of looks. Maybe I'll give it a spin if I find it.

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