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Drunken Monkey

(from left to right) Gordon Liu, Lau Kar-Leung and Wu Jing go ape in Drunken Monkey.
Chinese: 醉馬騮  
Year: 2003  
Director: Lau Kar-Leung  
Producer: Mona Fong Yat-Wah  
Action: Lau Kar-Leung, Lau Kar-Wing  
Cast: Lau Kar-Leung, Wu Jing, Yao Yao, Chik Kun-Kwan (Chi Kuan-Chun), Chiang Chun-Wan, Lau Wing-Kin, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui (Lau Kar-Fai), Li Hai-Tao
The Skinny: Decidedly mediocre kung-fu flick which earns most of its points thanks to the complete nonexistence of period kung-fu flicks. Drunken Monkey fills that void adequately, but it could only qualify as an average example of the genre.
by Kozo:

Shaw Brothers makes a new movie! Sort of. Drunken Monkey represents a return to the classic kung-fu flick in many ways. A) It's directed by master Lau Kar-Leung (AKA: Liu Chia-Liang), who directed the old school classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and the new school classic Drunken Master II. B) Lau Kar-Leung is featured in a starring role, along with a "guest appearance" from old time kung-fu star Gordon Liu (AKA: Lau Kar-Fai). C) The setting is period (1930s China) and features your typical kung-fu iconography (masters, pupils, revenge, bonds of brotherhood, etc.). And D) It was actually produced by some of those shadowy Shaw Brothers executive types. With all that going for it, one would hope that Drunken Monkey is able to capture that oldtime kung-fu magic.

Lau Kar-Leung stars as Man Biu (or Man Bill in the subtitles), the proprietor of the respected Chun-Yuen Delivery company. Man Biu is also a renowned practicer of that most awesome martial arts form: The Monkey Fist. Called "Monkeyish Fist" in the amusingly old-school subs, the Monkey Fist is a kung-fu form that involves lots of rolling around, crouching like a lower primate, and screechy monkey noises. It's also widely popular among certain hip youth (if 1930s China even had hip youth), including budding artist Chan Ka-Yip (Lau Wing-Kin) and his great-uncle Tak (Wu Jing of Tai Chi 2 and The Legend of Zu), who just so happens to be the same age. You see, Tak's dad was really the great-uncle of Ka-Yip's dad, which means lots of family shenanigans about who really wears the pants in the family, the young elder or the actual aged folks. Whether such comedy hijinks are actually interesting may depend on your familiarity with such wacky family trees—the safe bet being that very few of you are. You probably came for the kung-fu.

Which the film returns to, gratefully. Man Biu gets ousted from his own trading company by younger brother Man Pao (Chiang Chun-Wan) and evil bastard Yu (Chik Kun-Kwan). Biu is beaten to a pulp and nearly drowned, and actually survives, though he's content to remain in hiding with his adopted daughter Siu Man (played by Shannon Yao, and called "Mandy" in the subs) instead of seeking retribution. He wishes to forget the evil days when his own brother tried to kill him, but as is the case with all these family gangster ties: whenever he tries to get out, they pull him back in. Inspector Hung Yat-Fu (Gordon Liu) comes calling and discovers that Man Biu is considered dead. Luckily, he also happens upon Ka-Yip and Tak, who are wandering around trying to find their idol Man Biu. How they deduced he was still alive is somewhat of a mystery, but their goal in seeking him out is dopey with a capital "D." Ka-Yip wants to complete his "Handbook of the Monkeyish Fist," while Tak presumably wants to learn how to kick ass like a monkey. They run into Siu Man practicing Monkey Fist in the local market (that's keeping a low profile) and proeceed to chase her to their quarry: Master Man Biu. They also eat lots of bananas and behave in a generally wacky and sometimes annoying manner. Boy this is exciting.

Ah, but the the re-emergence of Man Biu means that Hung Yat-Fu and evil bastards Man Pao and Yu can't be far behind. Revenge and the defense of honor become the big topics of the day, and in the end, there's a climactic showdown between a fistful of Monkey Fisters (Man Biu, Siu Man, Tak and Ka-Yip) and the new Cheung-Yung Trading Company, which was changed by the aforementioned evil bastards into (gasp!) a front for opium smuggling. People fight, act like monkeys, and DRINK. Apparently, to fully utilize the Monkey Fist, you must drink like a fish, and whale away at your opponent (editor note: we apologize for the mixed metaphors). Like in Drunken Master II, alochol makes you stronger and less impervious to pain. It also means the actor gets to mug and overact like a madman, which the whole cast gleefully does. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon this is not.

Not that Lau Kar-Leung is trying for some wannabe Ang Lee effort. Billed as "the first real martial arts movie of the millennium", Drunken Monkey certainly gives us the martial arts. The Drunken Monkey Fist is a seriously silly martial art, and is given to more wacky hijinks than is probably asked for by today's moviegoing audience, but it can also be entertaining. When Wu Jing (a former classmate of Jet Li), Lau Kar-Leung and company cut loose with the Monkey Fist, there is a minor thrill in seeing real kung-fu artists strut their stuff instead of your typical well-coiffed employees of EEG. The fight sequences are entertaining in their effective choreography and doses of impact. If you can ignore the constant mugging and the uninteresting actors, then a good time can be had.

However, the actors do mug too much and they are generally uninteresting. It's great to see Lau Kar-Leung and Gordon Liu back on the screen, but they're brought down by the incredibly uncharismatic Lau Wing-Kin, and the almost as uninteresting Wu Jing. At the very least, Wu Jing displays a suitable physical presence, but his hyperactive mugging recalls Dicky Cheung Wai-Kin in his terrible nineties movies, or a kung-fu actor afflicted with seizures. Likewise the bad guys are incredibly two-dimensional, and even get to laugh riotously like James Tien Chun wannabes. Also, the family "comedy" is annoying and dopey to distraction. Maybe this stuff was business-as-usual back in the Kung Fu Movie heyday, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily welcome today.

What is welcome, however, is the fighting. If you want to watch people hit each other, then Drunken Monkey is probably a better bet than The Twins Effect, though the actors are nowhere near as pretty. The film gives itself numerous pats on the back for being the genuine deal (the opening credits is a narrative-unrelated martial arts exhibition), and despite the uneven silliness of the film, it does provide better choreographed and staged fu than we're used to seeing nowadays. Drunken Monkey is also the only game in town, which gives it automatic cred for fighting fans everywhere. Its status as the only film of its type helps overshadow the fact that it's really not a good movie; in todays' fight-starved movie economy, a meager genre example like this gets higher marks than it should. Had it been released in the early nineties, Drunken Monkey would likely have been compared to the egregious Drunken Master III instead of the sublime Drunken Master II. Lau Kar-Leung directed all three films, which could indicate that the missing ingredient is none other than Jackie Chan, who appeared in only Drunken Master II. However, given Chan's recent output (The Medallion), it's doubtful he would have made Drunken Monkey that much better. (Kozo 2003)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Asia Video Publishing Co, Ltd.
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

images courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen