Drunken Monkey Review
Back in early 2003 expectations were high prior to the release of Drunken Monkey, a film that boasted a pedigree of talent and musings from its director relating to the resurrection of traditional martial arts tales of old. Not only were fans of the genre keen for the film to be a deserved success, but you can be sure many of the talented actors and martial artists who were coming into their own during the mid-nineties collapse of the genre were looking for that rarity in life, a second chance.
Coming out of semi-retirement almost ten years after his troubled production on Drunken Master II, director, kung fu master and genuine legend in his field Lar Kar-leung returned for what would also be the first film produced under the Shaw Bros. studio banner in an even greater number of years. Promising to resurrect the expert performer and action choreographer's career by focusing on a classic tale of trust, betrayal and revenge with a healthy injection of intricate martial arts action the project was always going to be an uphill struggle due to the complete lack of martial art genre pictures in the then Hong Kong movie market. Further help was on hand, with another mainstay of the Shaw Bros. era Gordon Liu on board as actor, while Wu Shu prodigy Jacky Wu, previously seen in Yuen Woo-ping's Tai Chi Boxer selected to be the young co-star alongside Lau Kar-leung.
Set in 1930s China the film opens with Man Bill (Lau Kar-leung), master of the Monkey Fist and respected leader of the Chun Yuen Delivery Service discovering one of his most trusted men has been smuggling Opium. Insistent upon handing Man Pao (Chiang Chun-wan) over to the police Man Bill is instead lenient and swiftly repaid for his mercy by a vengeful Man Pao who leads him into a trap and leaves him for dead. Having miraculously survived and then been saved and cared for by a young country girl named Mandy (Shannon Yao Yao) the proceedings jump forward one year to find that Man Pao has turned Chun Yuen Delivery Service into a whoring, illegal international trading company. Meanwhile the detective (Gordon Liu) with whom Man Bill was acquainted too has arrived in town to visit his old friend, but it seems interest is high in the supposedly deceased Monkey Fist legend as Kai-yip (Lau Wing-kin), a young artist attempting to publish the definitive Monkey Fist kung fu manual and his helpful, young and physically strong companion Tak (Jacky Wu) are on their own quest to find Man Bill. Using these new arrivals to his advantage Man Pao discovers the home in which his old friend has created a new life in and sets about destroying it once more, leaving Man Bill with only one choice.
Basically a contrived excuse to play out some wonderful kung fu action the story suffers from being overly familiar and to be quite blunt, rather dull in its execution with some terribly dated characterisation that undoes a lot of what the eighties boom period of martial arts pictures succeeded in developing. Man Bill is the righteous kung fu master who prides himself on his physical and mental ability yet is taken for a ride by Man Pao, a smarmy double-crosser if ever you've seen one who will not get his dues until he threatens the new people in Man Bill's life and stains his good name forever. As Detective Hung Yat-fu Godon Liu puts in the most memorable performance of the film even if he is playing the respectful but doomed police-man to a tee, while the cocky younger members of the cast fulfil their roles as they combine to offer comic relief, eye candy, damsel in distress and young minds to mould and train before the Monkey Fist fighters head off to the final showdown.
Most of these old-school leanings could be easily forgiven but for two problems, the unfortunate juxtapositions between serious and slapstick moments and a trio of youngsters who are woefully underwritten and given little to work with. In the opening betrayal segment we see Lau Kar-leung set upon in a disturbingly brutal sequence that has you wondering how on earth he could possibly survive, but with a leap of faith we move on. Unfortunately the year long transition takes us into a seemingly unrelated scene as the slapstick comedy is laid on thick as the artist Kai-yip, his imposing mother and the strung up Tak are creating poses for a Monkey Fist manual. With an irritable energy to them these segments continue further as the whole bizarre family appear to go about their lives as if part of a performing circus, before the film once again takes a turn towards the dark side and then once again back to slapstick. Needlessly jarring it works against the films latter (and incredibly brief) training sequences as the 'drunken' aspect of the Monkey Fist style is introduced, but instead of being amusing the strange combinations of styles combined with Lau's mixed performance have you consider him a hopeless alcoholic rather than the comical, playful martial arts master we are more familiar with in films of this ilk.
So the plotting is risible and did I mention the pathetic efforts at a romantic undercurrent that are swiftly forgotten, as are the sequences where the young fighters actually prove they are ready prior to going into the finale? No? Well lets get to the action as that's where the films saving grace lies, with Lar Kar-leung and brother Lau Kar-wing developing several fight sequences that see the former go head to head with an entire gang and his own real-life student Gordon Liu - in what is probably the best sequence in the film - before he is joined by his young protégés in the final showdown. Weapons and close combat hand to hand techniques are favoured over fancy kicking movements, while acrobatic displays add some punch to the visuals but most importantly the main stars in Lar Kar-leung and Jacky Wu convince as fighters, while Shannon Yao doesn’t look bad either. Even here there are complaints and they lie with the mostly unimpressive finale, something that is setup with possibly the best moment of the young male leads as they sit puffing cigars in the bad guys lair, but sadly goes on to use the 'drunken' aspect of the fighting as a poor gimmick instead of actually entertaining with over the top animal fu displays.
Picture and Sound
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen this is solid presentation of a recent film. Print damage is virtually non-existent though occasional white specks can be seen if you look hard enough. Detail levels are consistently high allowing the beautiful Chinese locations to look their best as they bask in natural sunlight while the competent sets shot in more controlled conditions tend to look even better. Strong colours and deep black levels compliment the natural cinematography while compression is handled very well, with only moiré patterns proving distracting on the occasional chequered shirt chosen by the costume department. Though I could be wrong, some readers may want to note signs of what I believe to be an NTSC to PAL transfer with doubled frames quite apparent as I stepped through the disc on my PC for screen grab purposes.
In terms of audio we are presented with optional Cantonese and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo mixes. This is both commendable for giving us the option to choose and frustrating if you'd rather simply be told which is considered the original track. It seems key players such as Lar Kar-leung and Gordon Liu were speaking Cantonese while Jacky Wu - a mainland cast member - opted for his native Mandarin. Switching between the 5.1 mixes I found myself leaning towards the Cantonese track as it appears to feature most of the cast members speaking their own dialogue, while the sound mix is notably superior to the Mandarin alternative with both surround effects and dialogue being far better placed.
Optional English subtitles are excellent with no spelling or grammatical errors spotted.
A theatrical trailer and that's it.
Flawed in most departments Drunken Monkey is subject to particularly harsh criticism because of the potential it had but fails to deliver upon. Despite this there is much to be said for the draw Lar Kar-leung and Gordon Liu present, the latter more so with his post Kill Bill fame while the general story and performances are no worse than a dozen (or ten dozen) martial arts pictures you've seen before. Still, it’s needless to say this is one for hardcore martial arts fans only and the high price of the Optimum Asia release does it no favours...
...on the subject of Optimum Asia this was their first release and the disc showed great promise which the label has subsequently failed to live up to, with none of their recent titles receiving the same level of audio and subtitle features present here. A great shame, as this DVD offers a very good film presentation.