This piece was originally meant to coincide with the release of Disney’s live-action Mulan remake. With that film being delayed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I honestly didn’t want to write something about another film. Come Drink With Me is worth your time and should be celebrated even without some tenuous tie-in to a current movie. Since there is a sequel, I have plenty of time to make that connection between star Cheng Pei-Pei and Mulan. Anyway, without further ado…
The idea of wuxia films wasn’t really a thing in the 60s. Shaw Brother Studios, founded in 1958 after a tumultuous history in mainline China, began its operation by creating dramas and such before really digging into action movies. The Chinese government had actually banned the production of any movies with martial arts in them some 20 years prior, which resulted in a burgeoning Hong Kong film industry popping up seemingly overnight.
While there’s absolutely more to the story than that, the context in which Come Drink With Me released is more important than anything. By modern standards, the film is a bit stilted and even kind of slow. Dialogue doesn’t flow naturally and the plot is…present? Calling it serviceable is being generous, though this was practically the beginning of a genre here.
So in 1966 when Shaw Brothers released the film, no one could have known how influential it would become. Even putting aside how its lead character is a woman, this was a movie with people jumping through the air, slicing each other up, and acting like total badasses in the face of danger. Every trope you’ve heard about martial arts films started here.
The story begins with a mysterious man dressed in white attacking a military convoy. Part of a bandit group, this man wants to see his leader returned or he’ll continue his assault. When the troops try to retaliate, we’re treated to a fast paced fight scene that was likely mind blowing in the 60s. It’s still damn good for modern cinema, even. Soon, the military general’s son is captured and we now have a motivation for this bloodbath to continue.
With the stage set, we get introduced to the main character: a sword fighter named Golden Swallow. Daughter to the very same military general, her involvement in this story is easy to discern. She wants to free her brother and end these bandits’ reign of terror. At the behest of her father, she enters the fray and looks for information.
The best thing about Come Drink With Me is that the film doesn’t really slow down. Running at only 91 minutes, the movie doesn’t ask a lot of your time. It might be hard to keep the various plot threads straight, but the action comes fast and furiously. The longest gap between people getting smacked is roughly 15 minutes.
It’s maybe a bummer that a lot of the story doesn’t hold up at all, but you do need to remember when this film was released. Even in the 70s, you didn’t see many Kung Fu films with people bleeding all over or children getting brutally murdered. Come Drink With Me throws that at you in almost every scene. It’s quite shocking at some points.
This film would also propel actress Chang Pei-Pei into superstardom. Still relatively new at the time, she would quickly become a Shaw Brothers staple for playing a deadly female assassin. Her legacy would even follow her into Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where she plays the villainess Jade Fox. It’s hard to overstate how important Come Drink With Me was for the medium and its actors.
Pei-Pei would return to the character a few years later in the aptly named Golden Swallow, but her portrayal here is the stuff of legends. If you’ve ever loved the trope of a femme fatale in action roles, she’s the one to thank for popularizing it. Without her cold demeanor and graceful movements, martial arts cinema may have remained a man’s world for much longer.
One massive trope in all Kung Fu films is that of the teacher/mentor figure. Wouldn’t you know it, Come Drink With Me also features that. Golden Swallow runs into an unassuming drunk beggar (who asks her for a drink, likely inspiring the film’s international title) that ends up holding a secretive past of being some magnificent fighter. After saving Swallow a few times, he begins to train her in the ways of battle and even opens up about why he is in hiding. It’s not exactly deep, but all good tropes need to start somewhere.
Another impressive and quirky thing to note in this film is Shaw Brothers’ propensity for using elaborate sets. The 60s and 70s saw massive expansion in Hong Kong and had construction happening almost daily. While other studios would make the trek outside and overdub their films after the fact, Shaw Brothers used their deep pockets to recreate entire forests and fields in a production stage. In Come Drink With Me, there’s a mixture of both set designs, but an insanely detailed swamp plays home to a huge third act battle. It’s hilarious to look at, but also kind of insane to think about. What are the logistics of creating a full waterfall and pond just to film 10 minutes of footage?
More than anything, Come Drink With Me is just fun to watch. It can certainly get long in the tooth with its writing, but the simplistic nature of its revenge story is easy to get invested in. You don’t really learn a whole lot about the cast, but then what more do you need to know? Golden Swallow is a boss and she’ll kill you. When she can’t kill you, her mysterious teacher will. The villains are bastards and they all deserve what they get. Why complicate things more?
Obviously, wuxia films evolved past this point, but the foundation that Come Drink With Me laid down cannot be understated. Without this film, there would be no Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, or Donnie Yen. The Hong Kong film industry would have never taken off. We wouldn’t even be discussing the impact of martial arts films because they likely wouldn’t have made the jump across the ocean.
Come Drink With Me doesn’t necessarily hold up in terms of storytelling and editing, but it’s still a monumental film in its own right. Just make sure to avoid the English dub if you do watch it. It really does a disservice to this movie.
February’s Piece: Enter the Dragon