I must confess that when it comes to Old School Hong Kong martial arts period films, I’m not privy to a lot of background. For instance, I am familiar with exactly zero actors in the new movie “Drunken Monkey”, even though from everything I’ve read these are well known names within the genre.
“Drunken Monkey” is the kind of Old School movie that loudly trumpets its reliance on wireworks and “real” martial arts instead of CGI, the standard method of “teaching” martial arts to Hong Kong pop idols nowadays. This return to “the old” is a good thing. Then again, “Drunken Monkey” is also Old School in the sense that it opens with a totally serious 20-minute sequence where an honorable man discovers that his little brother is smuggling opium, is betrayed by said brother and their boss, and is then ambushed and beaten to within an inch of his life. The rest of the movie is all Tomfoolery, comedy hi-jinks, mistaken identity, and the type of ridiculous character motivations that only films in this particular genre can believe is in the realm of possibility. Try to make too much sense of the whole thing and your head is liable to implode.
Although the A-plot is featured prominently in the first 20 minutes, it isn’t until the hour mark that it resurfaces, when the traitorous Wen Bao (Chiang Chun Wan), realizing that the brother he betrayed and tried to kill a year earlier is in fact still alive and living in the countryside with his prot’g’ Xiao Min (Shannon Yao), returns to finish the job. Wen Bao’s discovery of the continued existence of his brother Wen Biao (director Lau Kar Leung) is prompted by jokers Ah De (Jason Wu Jing) and Chen Jiaye (Lau Wing Kin), who seeks out the drunken monkey master for personal reasons. Ah De wants to learn the martial arts while Jiaye wants to draw the technique. (Apparently Jiaye’s only obvious skill is drawing really fast.) Along the way, Gordon Liu shows up as “the agent”, who inadvertently helps the bad guys locate Wen Biao. Why? Because the Script Says So.
The only way to approach “Drunken Monkey” is to ignore the fact that the screenplay by Pak Ling Li is unbelievably unskilled, not to mention essentially consisting of every clich’d plot and scenario of 1000s of past films in the genre, right down to the inevitable love triangle between Xiao Min, Ah De, and Chen Jiaye. Accept these contrivances and there’s a chance you might think “Drunken Monkey” isn’t so bad. Oh sure, after about 40 minutes of silly comedy a woman is abducted and threatened with rape, but that’s pretty much standard stuff. Thankfully, the absurdity doesn’t reach the level of “Once Upon a Time in China”, which is really quite awful if you look at it from a storytelling standpoint.
Although it is a bit surprising that the bulk of the film’s fighting is by director Lau Kar Leung, who must be in his ’50s. Despite the fact that the man’s skills are very obvious, I’m not sure if watching an old man fight for most of the movie is, er, all that entertaining. It’s not until the final 15 minutes, after Ah De and Jiaye are taught monkey boxing in order to battle Wen Bao and his merry band of opium smugglers, that the “kids” of the movie join in on the action. Even then, Jason Wu Jing’s Ah De does most of the fighting, while Jiaye spends most of his time pretending to paint and fool around with his mom aka the Odious Comedy Relief. (Lau Wing Kin’s lack of fighting scenes probably owes to the fact that he’s not an actual martial artist.)
Although I found this particular genre interesting as a kid, watching them again as an adult has elicited a different response. I don’t have quite the same admiration for them now that I once did. I think that as an adult viewer I expect more from a film. I.e. I expect the story to have a flow to it and for silly plot contrivances to be kept to a minimum, if they must exist at all. Then again, it could just be that as an adult I no longer accept that these movies are supposed to be this silly and uneven, with bloodshed followed by hi-jinks.
For sheer martial arts, “Drunken Monkey” might satisfy those looking for nothing more than men in period clothes performing elaborate fisticuffs. I wanted more, with a decent screenplay coming in at first spot. Alas, “Drunken Monkey” is all about genre conventions and nothing more, and if you happen to like the genre, I suspect you’ll like this movie.
Lau Kar Leung (director) / Pak Ling Li (screenplay)
CAST: Gordon Liu …. Hung Yihu
Lau Kar Leung …. Wen Biao