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Cocky Swagger of the Best Kind: Revisiting Come Drink with Me (1966)

Come Drink with Me is often regarded as the film that kick started the martial arts genre. While it wasn’t the first film of its kind, it was the film that made an impact, and besides helping a relatively new genre make its way to the consciousness of the wider masses, it also helped launch the acting careers of many of it’s main cast. Produced by the Shaw Brothers studio and directed by the legendary wuxia director King Hu, Come Drink with Me not only offered great production values but also something slightly out of the ordinary to attract the audiences to the theater seats: a female lead. Up until this point martial arts cinema had been largely dominated by male protagonists, so to have a beautiful young woman at the business end of the sword was a breath of fresh air to the same old tale of sword wielding heroics. Cheng Pei Pei’s performance as Golden Swallow is both strong and energetic and it is easy to see how this role was the one to jump start her career in the martial arts genre. The films eloquent fight sequences, together with King Hu’s expert skills in building tension, and the fantastic performances given by all of the lead cast, did their part in helping make the film the success that it is.  Nearly 60 years after it was released it is still a fantastically fun watch and one that deserves a revisit.

Come Drink with Me is a typical wuxia where story is considered; a son of a local governor has been kidnapped by a gang of bandits who demand the release of their incarcerated leader in order to release their prisoner. An exchange of this nature is not something the governor is willing to consider, so instead he sends his daughter Chang Hsuan-yen, a famous swordswoman also known as the “Golden Swallow”, after the bandits. Along the way she encounters the local drunk Fan Ta-p’I (Yueh Hua), a skilled martial arts master who after saving Golden Swallow’s life on no less than two occasions, joins her rescue mission in order to bring justice to his own master.

Even for a viewer such as myself, whose knowledge of the wuxia genre is limited at best, it’s easy to see why Come Drink with Me is held in such high esteem in martial arts cinema. As it is one the prototypes for such adventures, some of the fight scenes obviously lack the polished look of films that would follow, but that is by no means to say that they are unrefined or clumsy; quite the opposite. The most memorable of these is the scene that introduces Golden Swallow to the story, when Cheng Pei Pei enters a local inn full of thugs. What follows is a one of the tensest and undeniably coolest scenes in cinema history, easily rivalling the tension of any spaghetti western stand-off ever made. While Golden Swallow calmly waits for her order of wine and food, one by one the other customers are driven out by the bloodthirsty bandits, until only they and Golden Swallow remain.  Surrounded by enemies and a subject of all types of threats, she keeps her cool and collected demeanour even when jugs of wine and bar benches start frying towards her, simply swatting them away as you would a fly. When coming face to face with “Smiling Tiger”, one the gang leaders, and after beating him in a brief sword battle, her stony calmness is still unwavering and she simply asks the innkeeper for a room and to buy her two horses, as when she leaves, she is “going to have friends with her.” This gratifyingly droll little gesture of determined confidence is the very essence of Golden Swallow: slightly overconfident, almost to the degree of being arrogant, but only because she definitely has the goods to back it up.

Cheng Pei Pei certainly was the woman with the goods, and when it comes to the success of this film, she has a lot to answer for. Merely 19 years old and fairly new to acting (Come Drink with Me being only the sixth film she starred in), she brings forth mesmerising intensity and just the right amount of cocky swagger needed for the role. With her extensive background in dance, starting her ballet studies at the age of only eight and over the years expanding her studies to jazz, modern and other forms of dance, she was indeed well equipped to take on the role of a master swordswoman. Her performance is not one of brutal force but of graceful elegance—a perfect counterbalance to the brash sensibility of Golden Swallow. Quite understandably Cheng went on to carry her career in martial arts cinema, following Come Drink with Me with films like Princess Iron Fan (Tie shan gong zhu, 1966), The Flying Dagger (Fei dao shou , 1969) and Brothers Five (Wu hu tu long, 1970), as well as revisiting the role from Come Drink with Me in the eponymous Golden Swallow (Jin yan zi, 1968).  After some years of absence, she returned to the genre in 2000 with Ang Lee’s martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long), this time tackling a role of a villain with the same wonderful energy that she exudes in her earlier work.

Yueh Hua, as the partnering hero Fan ta-p’i, does a fantastic job as the seemingly oblivious drunken beggar.  Entering the story as what seems like just comic relief at first, it soon becomes apparent that there is more to the character than it may seem. After luring Golden Swallow out of her room with his drunken antics and helping save her from an assassination attempt, he then goes further, helping her to track down the bandits she has been negotiating with. Even when Golden Swallow, in all her reckless bravery, goes and confronts the gang on her own, Fan ta-p’i is not far away and once again ends up as the young woman’s guardian angel after she is wounded with a poison dart. This is where the real nature of the foolish panhandler is really revealed, and the story changes focus somewhat from Golden Swallow’s rescue mission to Fan ta-p’i‘s own mission of vengeance. I do find it a little bit disappointing that the ending of the film focuses more on Fan ta-p’i rather than Golden Swallow, and the final showdown between him and his older brother in arms seems slightly divorced from the rest of the film. That being said, I do also recognise that Fan ta-p’i’s character is one that is necessary, bringing well needed levity to the story and even helping our audacious heroine seem a bit more vulnerable and human than she otherwise might.

Of course, great heroes alone cannot carry the whole film, and two main antagonists of this story, Smiling Tiger and Jade Faced Tiger, are both equally intriguing individuals. Li Yunzhong takes on a wonderful role as the ominously threatening Smiling Tiger, whose trademark smile rarely falters. He exudes menace, even when simply directing his cohorts with a flick of a fan, it is obvious that this is not someone you want to mess with. Behind the sinister smile there is a man of violence that will not hesitate to kill, given the chance. Slightly more transparent about his barbaric ways is his superior, Jade Faced Tiger (Chan Hung-lit) whose brutal nature we are introduced to in the very first scene. Unlike Smiling Tiger, who seems like a man that happily gives the orders but otherwise stays in the background, Jade Faced Tiger revels in bloodshed. Right at the start of the story we are faced with a scene of him cutting off a hand of an adversary with great delight on his heavily made up face. Even murdering a child just seems like another day at the office for this cold-hearted bandit and not something that is likely to disturb his beauty sleep. Chan Hung-lit does a fantastic job as the ever so campy, but still quite intimidating thug. Danger emanates from every fibre of his being and he is not to be trusted even if you happen to fight for the same cause. Paired with Li Yunzhong’s menacing performance, the two come together as the perfect foil to Cheng Pei Pei’s Golden Swallow.

When talking about the action side of Come Drink with Me it is useful to have a look at the time and place from where it arose. At the time the Shaw Studios had only started to dabble in the world of colour martial arts films and screen choreography was yet in its infancy, with epic aerial fight scenes still some ways in the future. King Hu had just come off the very arduous process of making Sons of Good Earth (Da di er nu, 1965) and the studio had specifically asked him to tackle something “simpler” for his next project. In order to sell Come Drink with Me to the studio heads, Hu decided to play it safe and suggest using actors from the studios own acting class, a venture that would pay off tenfold. As he was also close with the Shaw Studio actor and choreographer Han Yingjie, he asked him to join the team and help design the films fight scenes, inadvertently making him the first choreographer to get the title “martial arts choreographer” in film credits.

For contemporary audiences, the action scenes in Come Drink with Me might be slightly underwhelming. Many of the actual fight shots are tightly framed and do not show the full scale of the action, leaving some of the wilder stuff, such as classic jumps across the nocturnal rooftops, up to the viewers’ imaginations. Still there is plenty of sword wielding action, and the bigger battle scenes with Golden Swallow confronting the villains at their temple hideout. The final showdown at the end of the film show King Hu’s precise directorial hand as well as the talent of his actors, and Han Yingjie’s skilful choreography comes into its own. The influence of Chinese opera is evident in these stylized scenes where the fight choreography flows like a dance. The action may seem slightly unsophisticated when compared to contemporary equivalents but nevertheless has a beautiful rhythm to it. The pauses between action are as important as the action itself. Cheng’s background in the world of ballet works to her advantage here as it is very clear that we are watching someone with a good understanding of choreography. She moves past her enemies like water through rocks—elegantly and with ease, leaving a trail of corpses behind her. The body count of Come Drink with Me is a high and bloody one. Despite the lyrical swordplay that dominates the film’s action scenes, it is not without gore. The amount of bloodshed in some of the scenes is surprising.  

Come Drink with Me is a legend in its genre for a reason: it is the bedrock for so many films that followed, offering a blueprint not only for great action but for first-rate female action heroes. Surely films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would not be what they are if it was not for the earlier film’s influence. While martial arts cinema might have moved on with bigger and bolder effects and overbearing action that shows everything in its gory glory, the elegance of Come Drink with Me is timeless and will undoubtedly continue inspiring and influencing the genre in decades to come.

Sources:

Walter Chaw. “Queen of Swords: FFC Interviews Cheng Pei-pei”. From Film Freak Central. July 20, 2015. https://www.filmfreakcentral.net/ffc/2015/07/queen-of-swords-ffc-interviews-cheng-pei-pei.html

Arthur Tam. “Cheng Pei-pei (鄭佩佩) on Ang Lee and her iconic roles with Shaw Studios”.  From Time Out. March 31, 2015. https://www.timeout.com/hong-kong/film/cheng-pei-pei-on-ang-lee-and-her-iconic-roles-with-shaw-studios

George Chung Han Wang. “A Life in Cinema: Interview with King Hu – Part 1”. From Academia.edu https://www.academia.edu/40203392/A_Life_in_Cinema_Interview_with_King_Hu_-_Part_1

About Niina Doherty

Niina is a life long genre fan and enthusiastic amateur writer. Originally from Finland, but currently based in the UK, she mostly spends her time writing, painting, watching films and in general tomfoolery with her little boy. Besides Diabolique, Niina also writes for Horrornews.net as part of their Asian horror review team.

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