One of the bedrocks of Chinese kung-fu movies, King Hu's 1966 wuxia classic Come Drink With Me is best known as primary source material for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but its influence is far more extensive. Inspired by the movements and rhythms of Chinese opera, it could also be credited as the root of a more balletic style of fight choreography, the gold standard for female ass-kickery from Michelle Yeoh to Uma Thurman, and a "drunken master" source while Jackie Chan was still in short pants. (Chan can apparently be seen as a young singer early in the film, though there's some dispute over the fact.) Finally released here under the Weinstein Company's Dragon Dynasty label, the film marries Shaw Brothers production values with a story that's full of sophistication and feeling, rather than just obligatory strands connecting the fight sequences.
As the film opens, a group of ruthless thugs ambushes a government caravan and abducts a young official as retribution for having its own leader imprisoned. The thugs intend to set up an exchange, but the government instead dispatches the official's sister, Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-Pei), whose kung-fu skills are as legendary as she is mysterious and elusive. She seems capable of handling the entire gangs on her own, but when a poison dart strikes her in the heat of battle, it falls to a beggar called Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua) to rescue her and regroup for a final confrontation against the bad guys.
Cheng Pei-Pei had a background in professional dance, not martial arts, and her movements suggest grace more than strength, which not only gives her character a cool, unflappable reserve, but helps transform Come Drink With Me into something that looks as much like a musical as it does a kung-fu movie. At times, it even breaks out into song. And there's magic, too, in the quiet rapport between Golden Swallow and Drunken Cat, who become partners with few words exchanged and Astaire-Rogers timing. It seems like fantasy, but the action remains more grounded and realistic than the "wire fu" films to come. Hu and his stars just make it look easy.
Key features: A commentary track with Cheng and Hong Kong action cinema expert Bey Logan highlights a generous array of supplements, including a Hu appreciation by Tsui Hark, and separate interviews with Logan, Cheng, and Yueh Hua.