With the release of ScarJo’s Lucy looming, we can expect the publicity campaign to wax rhapsodic about the significance of a female action hero. Of course, Michelle Yeoh has been kicking butt and carrying action films for decades. So has Angela Mao. Cheng Pei-pei also did it before Johansson and did it far better in King Hu’s Shaw Brothers classic, Come Drink with Me (trailer here), which screens during BAM Cinématek’s retrospective, All Hail the King: the Films of King Hu.
Drink would be Hu’s definitive film for legendary producer Run Run Shaw, but also his last. Furthermore, it introduces the first of Hu’s many strong woman protagonists: Golden Swallow, the daughter of the scrupulously just provincial governor. A gang of outlaws has abducted her brother, expecting to exchange her for a colleague due to be executed for his crimes. Instead, the old man dispatches Golden Swallow to recover her brother and dispense some justice.
Kind of-sort of disguised as a man, Golden Swallow marches into the bandit’s favorite tavern, looking for trouble. They try to oblige, but she far outclasses mere henchmen. Needless to say, they vow to return, with their boss, Jade-Faced Tiger to continue the “negotiations.” To make things fairer, she will make a secret ally in Drunken Cat, the local lush, who is considerably more dangerous than his easygoing façade would suggest.
Come Drink is hardly the most complex wuxia story ever filmed, but it delivers several striking action sequences. Indeed, the fight scenes are vintage Hu, as deeply influenced by ballet as martial arts. It is not hard to gather why Golden Swallow’s exploits are often identified as a forerunner to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It is also easy to see how it launched Cheng Pei-pei to overnight superstardom. She has poise, presence, and all kind of moves. (It is hard to fathom mistaking her for a man, but that is a genre convention we just have to go along with.) Even though he sings and clowns as Drunken Cat, Yueh Hua more than holds up his end, bringing to mind Donnie Yen with his earnestly likable badassery.
In fact, there is something appealing about Golden Sparrow being her family’s designated action figure. She is impressive, but not super-heroic. Both she and Drunken Cat have their physical and emotional vulnerabilities, but they demonstrate humanist virtues as well.