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Come Drink With Me

China (1966), 90 minutes
Starring: Cheng Pei Pei, Yueh Hua, Chen Hung Lieh, Yeung Chi Hing
Reviewer: Teri Tom
Genre: Martial Arts
Rating: 5

Since my interview with Cheng Pei Pei appears in the current issue of Audrey magazine, I figured this would be a good time to roll out Celestial Pictures’ exquisite DVD release of Come Drink With Me. For those of you who don’t know, Pei Pei is the First Lady of wuxia (swordplay) film. In the 60s and 70s, she made over 20 films for Shaw Brothers, and this is the one that started it all. Come Drink With Me, along with Dragon Gate Inn, is also legendary director King Hu at his best.The DVD jacket sums up the plot with one sentence: “Here Cheng is Golden Swallow, who teams with swordsman Drunken Cat to battle a corrupt Buddhist monk with mystical martial arts powers.” In Stephen Teo’s Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, Hu admitted his preference for the uncluttered story: “If the plots are simple, the stylistic delivery will be even richer.” And, oh, what style. Known for his painstaking visual approach, Hu gives us a film in which virtually every frame rivals the most beautiful of paintings.

Hu also confessed to a lack of martial arts knowledge. He based his staged combat on Bejing opera and told Cahiers du Cinema, “Kung fu, Shaolin tales – I don’t understand anything about that.” And yet Come Drink With Me has my all-time favorite fight scene ever… ever. I have watched the temple fight from this film at least a hundred times. Not for its realism or spectacular special effects – but it is still everything a fight scene should be. It is a story within a story with its own peaks and valleys. Tension and release. In music terms, it has tempo variation and wide ranging dynamics. Unlike today’s martial arts films – which are shot so close and edited so fast, they are incomprehensible – Hu’s scenes employ medium and long shots, allowing us to see the story unfold. Of course, this requires a lot from the actors. It’s a price that few are willing to pay now, so we should appreciate all that Pei Pei’s dance background brought to the screen. I fear that Michelle Yeoh may be the last of a dying breed of Asian actresses with that kind of training and discipline. As Corey Yuen told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, “No one wants to work that hard anymore.”As I already mentioned, this is the film that made Pei Pei a star, and it’s easy to see why, with her striking that tricky balance between strength and vulnerability. And while she went on to stretch her dramatic range in other Shaw Brothers films, she was never more convincing as a martial artist than under Hu’s direction.

For Yueh Hua (Drunken Cat), Come Drink With Me was the film that made him a star as well. Here he provides an absolutely charming and endearing comedic counterbalance to Pei Pei’s stoic Golden Swallow.My only complaint – and it is a big one – is the jarring shift in focus, plot wise and thematically, that occurs at the halfway mark. It’s similar to the change that occurs in Hu’s later film, A Touch of Zen, in which swordplay gives way to mystical powers and the cheesy predecessor to the Force.

It’s a major transgression to forgive, but I do so without hesitation, for Come Drink With Me still is everything that today’s martial arts films are not. No CGI, no wirework, no close shots. No fast cutting, no unintelligible fights, no leading ladies with a whopping 2 months of martial arts training. Just a simple story with a nice message and told with great care.