Back in 1997, Homer Simpson casually ratified an old convention of martial arts cinema from the sidelines of a mob war: “But Marge, that little guy hasn’t done anything yet,” he pled of his long-suffering, cornflower blue-haired wife in “The Twisted World of Marge Simpson.” “Look at him! He’s gonna do something and you know it’s gonna be good.” A battle cry and a thud later, his theory becomes praxis.
A corollary of this rule is that the local beggarly drunk’s wretched hygiene and rice wine habit belie fighting prowess verging on divine. Sure, he’s a rogue, a mischief-maker and more than a bit of a nuisance. He’s also about to kill a bunch of men faster than blinking just by deflecting or misdirecting their would-be fatal blows against one another. Maybe skip the AA intervention.
This figure, the tipsy master, makes an impression in King Hu’s Come Drink with Me, his second film, which likewise made an impression on audiences as well as on wuxia cinema, a martial arts subgenre steeped in the fantastical. In Hu’s movie, the figure’s name is Fan Da-Pei, referred to at first as “Drunken Cat” probably because, like any feline worth their whiskers, he cozies up to strangers in pubs, nudges them for handouts and absolutely will not leave them alone until they acquiesce. He leads a small band of orphans in song, too, which to the cynical eye may look like a ploy for tugging on heartstrings and opening purses. It is, of course, but Da-Pei, being more than meets the eye, isn’t exploiting the kids: He’s caring for them, in keeping with his initially unspoken devotion to helping people in need.
Come Drink with Me is all about that type of duality. It begins with Hu’s lead, Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-Pei), daughter of a mighty general, whose brother has been taken hostage by bandits who hope to leverage his life for their imprisoned leader’s. She doesn’t strike the bandits as a danger right away, but on their introduction at a humble inn, when a small company of thugs try to intimidate her, Golden Swallow shows all of them up with her superior fighting skills. Around the time that Da-Pei demonstrates his superior superior fighting skills, Hu’s antagonist, the wicked abbot Liao Kung (Yeung Chi-Hing), arrives; rather than a genial monk dedicated to a life of worship and peace, he’s a killer and a crook. The film presents viewers with a multi-faced trio of heroes and villains, where none is, at various points in the narrative, what they appear.
That fits. Come Drink with Me isn’t what it appears, either—or better put, it isn’t what an audience might expect from Hu after seeing Dragon Inn, his third film, or Touch of Zen, his fifth. The latter two movies are easily Hu’s most celebrated. By comparison, Come Drink with Me almost feels overlooked or forgotten. This isn’t rational of course: In 1966, Come Drink with Me was one of Shaw Brothers Studio’s highest grossing movies, and today remains one of the formative wuxia films through the reframing of action as dance instead of combat. Realism takes second place behind stylism.
There is, after all, nothing realistic about Golden Swallow nabbing gold coins, tossed at her like projectiles, out of the air with her chopsticks. Nor is there realism in Da-Pei’s nimbleness, so far beyond the pinnacle of human possibility that he appears to teleport rather than run. Nor in Liao Kung’s ki blasts, blurry rays of an indeterminate nature shooting from his hands like miniature cyclones. Nor even in the bandits’ utmost cruelty, which extends from their gleeful massacre of Golden Swallow’s brother’s royal guard to Jade Faced Tiger (Chan Hung-lit), Liao Kung’s deputy, dealing a mortal wound to a mere boy. Jade Faced Tiger mistakes the boy for a spy and lodges a poison dart in his eye. When the mistake is clarified, Jade Faced Tiger summons one of his brutes to provide the venom’s cure: Murder! Hu heightens every element of Come Drink with Me, taking martial arts out of the realm of what’s possible and into a new space where heroes can practically fly without wings.
The secret to that shift is, yes, Hu’s ingenuity in casting a dancer as his lead instead of an actor with martial arts chops (or vice versa). But if Cheng’s presence in Come Drink with Me is key to the film’s transformational impact on its genre, then she deserves credit for that impact, too. Hu’s characters each bring their own aesthetic to the movie’s action sequences, but there’s a grace nestled in the way they orchestrate fights. “Balletic” could be the operative word here, which makes perfect sense: Cheng trained as a dancer before a family friend encouraged her to train with the Shaw brothers. Starring in kung fu films wasn’t her first career choice. In Come Drink with Me, Cheng welcomes that professional pivot with startling ease. For her, dancing allowed her to communicate with her body rather than her words. Wuxia fulfilled the same role, but replaced pliés with punches.
Cheng appeared in one more Hu film in her career, 1983’s All the King’s Men, but carved out a reputation and iconography working with other directors, including Chang Cheh in Golden Swallow, 1968’s sequel to Come Drink with Me. It’s amazing that she created such sea change in her debut, within the wuxia genre and specifically within Hu’s filmography. It’s part of what makes Come Drink with Me his building block, aside from reasons of financial and critical success. The style he developed from working with Cheng shaped the movies we recognize as masterpieces today, especially Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen. The former kicks off with a tavern-set fight scene, similarly conducted between a governor loyalist and a band of bloodthirsty ruffians; the plot focuses on the rescue and safeguarding of the governor’s children.
A Touch of Zen, meanwhile, carries hallmarks of Come Drink with Me’s cheeky humor, couched in clumsy scholar Gu (Shih Chun) and his bumbling attempts at aiding in armed conflict without any martial training of his own. In both films, emphasis is put on finesse over ferocity, with an underlying delicacy buttressing even the bloodiest fight scenes. Hu doesn’t shy from violence. Come Drink with Me is particularly brutal at times, from the death of the young monk to vicious hand amputations to liberal application of arterial spray. Golden Swallow’s kung fu is agile, but at the end of the day she’s still slicing and dicing legions of nameless bad guys. And yet, despite Hu’s embrace of violence, Come Drink with Me is memorable for its defiance of such trivial details as gravity and physics, and its advocacy of imagination ahead of grounded action.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.