Drunken Monkey (2002)
Director: Liu Chia-Liang
Writers: Keith Li
Starring: Wu Jing, Liu Chia-Liang, Gordon Liu, Wing-Kin Lau and Shannon Yao

The Plot: Bil Man (Lau Kar Leung, aka. Liu Chia-Liang) is a kung fu master who specializes in Monkeyish Fist, but during work hours he also happens to be the head of a successful delivery service. When Bil’s own brother turns against him, in order to make the delivery service into a trading post that doubles as a illegal opium den, he tries to murder Bil with the help of his new opium masters. Bil is severely beaten, but he manages to escape and find solace with his adopted daughter Siu Man (Shannon Yao). The two do well in hiding out, until the young Chan Ka-Yip (Lau Wing-Kin) and his grand-uncle Tak (Wu Jing), who is roughly the same exact age, find their hiding place and desperately want Bil Man to teach them Monkeyish Fist. You know, Chan Ka-Yip has the grand dream of drawing out an instructional booklet dedicated to Monkeyish Fist, but it will take a grand master to teach him the moves that he is missing. As these two bumbling fools stumble upon Bil, they also bring unnecessary attention that may very well jeopardize Bil’s new place in life!

The Review
Drunken Monkey is a title that has been on my to-watch list for years at this point. It was the first big martial arts film produced by the Shaw Bros. in a very long time, was directed by veteran Shaw Bros. director Liu Chia Liang (aka: Lau Kar Leung) and featured everyone’s favorite bald shaolin master: Gordon Liu! I am not sure what actually took me so long in getting around to finally watching the film, but now that I have done so I do regret putting it off for such a long time. Although Drunken Monkey isn’t likely to blow any minds due to its fairly cliche paternalistic nature, but this old-school meets new-school take on the kung fu genre makes for a fairly interesting watch. Liu Chia-Liang, who has been making films within the genre throughout all of the various changes that this field has seen, manages to craft an innovative and nostalgic tale that displays the finer points of each successive movement within the kung fu film genre.
Starting with the very opening of this film, it is very obvious that Liu Chia-Liang wants the audience to know that this is indeed a Shaw Brothers production. Mona Fong is once again producing and that familiar pattern of genre structure is in full force. Drunken Monkey opens with a demonstration from all of the main cast members in grand Shaw tradition, as they stand in front of a blank background while going through their martial arts movements. This new set isn’t quite as drab as the old Shaw openings used to be, as we get to see some really finely detailed props that read off the credits standing in the foreground that gives it a slightly modern feel in the midst of this celebration of retro styles. This intro is then slam cut next to a shot that features a very low canted angle, which is the sort of shot that defined the nineties in terms of martial art epics. These shots were so incredibly common in the Once Upon a Time in China series, Fong Sai Yuk and Iron Monkey, that once you see them you immediately know that this is a Hong Kong production and you can generally tell what era the film comes from.

The mix of old and new aesthetics goes strong throughout the film, as we see a broad mix of styles that makes the film seem as if it is throwing everything it possibly could at the audience. While the Shaw studio wasn’t primarily known for it, they did have many strong comedic kung fu films that came from their peak era. However, Liu Chia Liang obviously infuses both the tenacity and stoic honor of the more serious hero films of the film along with what I would consider more of a Golden Harvest era sense of slapstick comedy. The film often fluctuates in its seriousness. Although it is comedic for a great deal of its running time, Liang never lets his audience forget the fact that serious things are at foot here. The stuck-up little brat that looks to paint his monkey style kung fu pictures, played with annoyingly spectacular proficiency by Lau Wing-Kin, provides the primary form of comedy and he usually isn’t so over the top that it becomes unbearable. He and Wu Jing both get to try their hand at entertaining the audience, and while the movie doesn’t come close to finding that pitch perfect blend of action and comedy, the cast do a good job in playing the things that need to be straight, as straight, and those that need to be silly, as silly.
Liu Chia Liang, while not as exaggerated as his old rival Chang Cheh, did love his gimmicks as much as anyone. Drunken Monkey, if you didn’t already get it from the title, is another demonstration of drunken boxing as well as a demonstration for the monkey style of kung fu. Using the momentum for the re-release of Iron Monkey as well as the popularity of drunken style kung fu that was made so popular through Liu Chia Liang’s work on Legend of Drunken Master, Drunken Monkey definitely looked to cash in on the gimmickry of its concept. Within the realm of kung fu cinema this is not an offense mind you, because a good gimmick is the first step in setting your project apart from the masses. After all, we are in this for the escapism and pure entertainment that these massively orchestrated fight sequences provide us, and when the drama of these fights can be amplified through the use of some kind of ‘cool’ outside force: then why the heck not?

The fight sequences as you may can guess, with Liu Chia Liang at the helm, are fantastic. Although I had never really seen anything featuring Wu Jing before, I will definitely do a better job in keeping up with his career because he definitely has the charisma and the ability to be a big star. He shines in his role, consistently throwing out his toothy smile while he hams it up during the sillier moments, but is deadly serious whenever the fight sequences call for it. Liu Chia Liang himself has a large role in the film and although it is obvious that he is getting up in age, he still looks very good here! He doesn’t look a day older than he did in Legend of Drunken Master, and he is still able to move around in a nimble fashion that you can’t help but feel rather impressed by. Gordon Liu also shows up of course, but unfortunately the role can only be considered an extended cameo of sorts. It still goes without mention that he does a great job with what he has to do, he is Gordon Liu after all! The fight choreography is truly where the majority of the stars put in their best work, as they should, with Wu Jing standing out as the young and quick star making a name for himself. Shannon Yao is also very surprising in her role as Liu Chia Liang’s adopted daughter, and she really shows a tremendous amount of talent in order to keep up with all of these legends. The fight choreography itself is fast and brutal, with Liu Chia Liang and company employing a great many tricks from all facets of martial arts cinema. Including modern tricks such as playing with camera speeds and adding powder to the actors so that the punches have more impact. The choreography is extensive and shots go on for as long as they need to be. No fast cuts with two-moves slapped together and called fight choreography here, this is the real deal.

The Conclusion
Although it isn’t perfect and it suffers from being a bit cliche, Drunken Monkey is a very good modern martial arts film that pays homage to the legacy of the great filmmakers involved. I would definitely recommend it to Lau Kar-Leung fans looking to find something that hearkens back to his old days, as it does an excellent job in that department. I give the film a high three out of five stars. While I think it could possibly make it to a four out of five, for right now I have to say the cliche structure of the project might leave it feeling a bit old-hat despite how fun and nostalgic it can be.