Perhaps one of the most legendary titles in the genre, King Hu’s iconic martial arts epic “Come Drink with Me” was a revelation when it first premiered in the mid-60s. Being one of the first films to adapt a stylish bent to the martial arts scenes while still keeping it’s artistic touch, the film essentially launched Shaw Brothers as a studio for adrenaline-charged, hard-hitting action films.
In the middle of the countryside, a group of bandits takes the imperial envoy Chang hostage in order to demand the return of their leader. Although she is really a girl, the renowned fighter Golden Swallow (Pei-Pei Cheng, from “The Thundering Sword”) who claims to be Chang’s brother, arrives to secure his release. Tracking them down, she takes on the bandits in their hideout at a Buddhist temple, massacring dozens before she’s wounded by a poison dart. Subsequently, she is given refuge by Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua, from “The 14 Amazons”) a drunk that she met at the inn who reveals he is really a martial arts master. The two combine forces, she to secure Chang’s release, while Drunken Cat sets out to confront Jade Faced Tiger (Hung Lieh Chen, from “Snake Fist Fighter”) who betrayed the ways of his order and killed his master and is determined to obtain the abbot’s sacred staff that Drunken Cat holds.
‘Come Drink With Me’ is a legendary film in most regards. While kung-fu was employed in Hong Kong cinema since the 1920s, it launched a different format to the genre that still holds true to this day. The movie establishes a far more cinematic quality to the fighting that makes it look absolutely gorgeous on-screen, courtesy of action directors Han Yim-chieh and Poon Kin-kwan. Pausing, breaking contact, launching into attack and carrying a rhythmic tempo to the strikes and blocks were utilized, which gave the scenes a different charge. These come into play in the big action scenes such as the battles at the inn or a stellar confrontation at a Buddhist temple courtyard. The impact of these scenes is still felt in the genre to this day. Numerous directors throughout history have paid homage and respect to these scenes and they still retain their impact to this day.
That also comes from the story storyline. Co-written by director Hu and Ting Shan-hsi, ‘Come Drink’ includes poignant drama into the mix as well as the action. Each of the characters has something unique to bring to their battles. Golden Swallow suddenly finds herself overcome with doubt after being hit with a poison dart and left for dead. Drunken Cat is spoiled by his vow not to harm his brother. Tiger is a calculating yet graceful villain who is just as dynamic as the two heroes. This brings a different feel alongside the already vibrant fighting style, which creates a poignant story. The rest of the narrative consists of a simple story of revenge concocted as an excuse to engage in numerous hand-to-hand brawls or sword-fights along the way, as everyone comes together to fight each other.
That’s not to say there’s nothing wrong with this one. The simplistic story is a minor annoyance to be sure. This one is setup in the first ten minutes and charges forward from there, letting no doubt emerge as to what’s going on as ironically, the films that emerged afterward have spoiled this one. Too many later kung-fu films have taken the concepts and themes initiated here for themselves, leaving ‘Come Drink with Me’ to feel like one of the numerous followers rather than the leader. Likewise, the deliberate pacing might prove troublesome for modern viewers. This doesn’t go for full-on, non-stop fighting and brawling throughout here, it’s more slow-paced than expected, which keeps this one struggling along at times, with a dreary tempo in between the vigorous and lively action. Finally, it’s also rather curious what the point of Golden Swallow masquerading as a man was. Everyone she meets treats her as a man before the ruse, then once it’s revealed midway through she’s a woman, everyone treats her as a woman, an event that should’ve been a huge surprise to all. That it’s dropped and never brought back into play is a big telling point.
Overall, ‘Come Drink with Me’ is a dynamic and legendary film for all the right reasons. The impact it had on the Hong Kong martial arts scene is so significant that it almost uprooted what was being done overnight, and forced a flood of imitations that carries on to this day, with filmmakers tackling their own interpretations and homages to the film. The flaws aren’t detrimental at all, and this has to be included in any fan of martial arts cinema’s watch list at the least.