Drunken boxing is one of my favourite styles of performative kung fu to watch. I am partial to this kind of dance-like material in martial arts films. As you watch and wait for that penultimate moment when the swaying drunken fighter finally overbalances and falls, and then catch your breath to see what new position and direction of momentum resolves out of this, you are taken right into the performer’s kinetic world, and feel something of the forces of gravity that they must obey. Although instantly recognizable, the quirky beauty of drunken boxing also seems to accommodate different styles of movement and it is fascinating to compare performances in different films.
My favourite action sequence in the 1982 film Shaolin Temple is the drunken boxing duel between Jet Li and Yu Cheng Hui.* In this movie the viewer (and Jet Li’s character) is introduced to this form by a beautiful solo demonstration by Sun Jian Kui (who plays one of the monks). This solo demonstration of drunken pole is an expression of his character’s melancholy (which has resulted from the death of his wife and child). Later in the movie Jet’s character adopts this drunken pole form to match an inebriated villain’s drunken sword (and therefore to get the better of the villain’s unpredictably dangerous movements). Drunken pole allows Li to show off his innately fluid quality of movement and his ability to negotiate his way through a sequence with precision, grace and dynamism. Compared to other martial arts performers, Yu Cheng Hui (who is Li’s opponent in this duel) is very tall and long limbed. I would have expected someone with this lanky build to move awkwardly but instead his movement signature seems to be one of elegance, swiftness and agility. As well as being an entertainingly flamboyant actor of great presence his physical movements are extraordinarily beautiful to watch. In terms of build he is a contrast to the shorter and more compact Jet, but they are equally matched in terms of gracefulness and poise and this is what makes this fight scene so unforgettable.
As stated above, what fascinates me about drunken boxing is the way in which different performers and choreographers can adapt and use this one form to suit the aesthetics of different films or artists. I have already gushed and raved about the gracefulness of drunken boxing in Shaolin Temple but other movies I have watched have shown me some very different versions of this form.
Heroes of the East is directed and choreographed by Lau Kar Leung and features Lau in one scene as Master So, a stock character who pops up in lots of martial arts films and who is a master of drunken boxing. Lau’s quality of movement is very different to that of Jet Li or Yu Cheng Hui in Shaolin Temple. Rather his movements are short, sharp, jerky, and angular and this gives an energetic, quirky and humourous feel to the scene.
Another different interpretation of this form can be seen in the movie Drunken Master, which was choreographed by Yuen Wu Ping and stars Jackie Chan as a young man who is a protégé of Master So (played in this film by Yuen Wu Ping’s father Yuen Siu Tien). Chan effectively melds his usual crisp, punchy style of movement with the off kilter balances and sozzled mannerisms of the drunk in the very funny and ingeniously choreographed drunken boxing fight scenes in this movie. Drunken Master is probably one of my favourite films. Chan turns in a performance of real comedic and physical virtuosity, and Yuen Siu Tien is a revelation as Master So. An elderly man when he made this film, Yuen is doubled in some action scenes but still moves with an amazing nimbleness that belies his advanced years. He turns in a quietly authoritative and beautifully modulated performance that balances the youthful exuberance that cheeky Jackie brings to his role. The choreography he performs is more minimal and less highly wrought than Jackie’s, but somehow he manages to load all of his years of experience as a martial artist and Chinese opera sifu into each gesture and movement he makes. It is a resonant performance that makes me catch my breath.
Jackie Chan and Yuen Wu Ping would be reunited as performer and choreographer when they came to work on The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) which also stars frequent Yuen collaborator Jet Li. This time it is Chan who plays a drunken boxing master and a much older Jackie shows that he has lost none of his ability to use physical performance to define and animate a character and to imbue martial arts technique with his own personal warmth and finely honed performer’s instincts.
Jet Li performed another fight scene using drunken boxing later in his career in the film Last Hero in China (1993) which was also choreographed by Yuen Wu Ping. Anyone who has seen this film will probably have their memories of it dominated by one of the silliest fight scenes that Li has participated in where he dresses up as a chook and does battle with a bunch of guys dressed up as a Lion-dance version of a giant centipede. But directly after this fight there is another where Li guzzles wine to aneasthetize crushed toes (I cringe every time I think of this) to do battle with a dastardly villain. As with Shaolin Temple the drunken boxing form (and Yuen’s choreography in this film**) gives Li ample opportunity to wend his way through a series of gracefully swaying movements and unpredictable rythyms in a very beautiful performance. Li’s personal movement dynamic strongly emphasizes elegantly off centre positions in his performance of drunken boxing.*** He is able to shift and hold his torso very far off a central axis and this imbues his performance of drunken boxing choreography with a lot of eye catching and graceful lines.
All of the aforementioned scenes are quite different in character and aesthetic and yet all of them are instantly recognizable as forms of drunken boxing, even to a martial arts illiterate like me. Regardless of the performer or choreographer, when it is well done this form is entertaining to watch. The movements are initiated by a drunk’s capitulation to gravity and so have an organic, earthbound sense to them. However, at the same time, the unpredictability of the drunk can easily accommodate quirky shapes, irregular rhythms and unexpected combinations of movement in the choreography to fascinating effect.
POSTSCRIPT: Another notable Jackie Chan drunken boxing performance is in Drunken Master 2. I have only seen this once and that was when I was drunk so it is a bit of a blur in my memory. I am looking forward to rewatching it. If you have any favourite drunken boxing films then please tell me about them in the comments.
*In the next couple of paragraphs I have been lazy and cut and pasted some text from a short blog I wrote about drunken boxing in Shaolin Temple. You can find the full blog here: http://dangerousmeredith.wordpress.com/2010/02/14/shaolin-temple-random-thoughts-2-in-which-i-rave-about-drunken-boxing/
**Yuen never misses a chance to exploit Jet’s extraordinary grace and fluidity
***Another movie that underlines this is Dragons of the Orient. This documentary has extensive footage of a teenage Li performing wu shu forms, including drunken boxing.