Jackie Chan in "Drunken Master II" (1994)

30 Years Later: Drunken Master II 醉拳II (1994)

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this weekend, Drunken Master II <醉拳II> made history for a Jackie Chan film to hit the HK$40 million benchmark — HK$40.9 million, to be exact — at the time of its release in 1994.  It was also the second highest-grossing Hong Kong movie that year behind the Chow Yun Fat-led God of Gamblers Return <賭神2>.

This begs an all-important question: How was this even possible, considering the falling out between Jackie Chan and director Lau Kar-Leung behind the scenes? Apparently, Lau Kar-Leung didn’t see eye to eye with Jackie Chan over the action direction of the sequel. The former wanted a traditional martial arts style but the latter preferred something more extravagant. This is especially true during the teahouse fight against a small army of axe-wielding thugs and later, the climactic finale in the steel mill.

Ironically, this wasn’t the first time Lau Kar-Leung faced such a disagreement over the difference in the fighting style. Three years earlier, he had the same problem with Tsui Hark in Once Upon a Time in China <黃飛鴻>, which resulted in the latter bringing in Yuen Shun-Yi and Yuen Cheung-Yan to amp up the choreography.

Lau Kar-Leung may have his name retained as the sole director in the opening credits in Drunken Master II <醉拳II>. But fans of both Lau Kar-Leung and Jackie Chan’s works can see the difference in terms of how the action scenes are shot. The earlier moments, notably the spear fight between Chan and Lau Kar-Leung under the train were quintessential of Lau’s style. But his departure around midway through the production as a result of Chan’s firing was apparent. After Chan took over the action direction instead, the scenes in the teahouse and steel mill were shot in a more agile and acrobatic way.

The two different shooting styles in the action scenes could have been disastrous and uneven. And yet, it somehow works better than expected. Imagine if Chan chose to let Lau Kar-Leung retain the old-school action direction throughout the movie, the sequel might be not as successful at the end of the day.

Don’t get me wrong, as Lau Kar-Leung’s works in the past, particularly during his Shaw Brothers heydays were respectable as seen in the likes of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin <少林卅六房> (1978), Dirty Ho <爛頭何> (1979) and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter <五郎八卦棍> (1984). But his old-school kung fu genre styling would feel like an odd one out stuck in the past trying to connect with the ’90s modern audiences at the time.

With Chan’s heavy involvement in the sequel, he successfully brought Drunken Master II <醉拳II> into the contemporary era with his unique mix of propulsive action and comedy while maintaining the essence of the traditional kung fu genre.

Kudos go to him for pushing the boundaries of modernising the feel and tone of the sequel without making it too antiquated for its own good. His then-groundbreaking role in the first Drunken Master <醉拳> back in 1978 may have been a genre classic but he made the wise choice not to replicate the original. It sure helps the sequel to stand on its own without the need to rehash the first movie’s formula.

Sure, the sequel’s overall storyline — credited to Edward Tang and Yuen Kai-Chi — may have been fundamentally old-school. But the execution made me feel like I was watching a modern Hong Kong action movie disguised as a traditional kung fu film. The pace is efficient and the story starts out as a screwball comedy — an accidental swap of boxes coincidentally wrapped in the same yellow cloths. We learn that Wong Fei-Hung (Chan) wanted to help his father, Wong Kei-Ying (Ti Lung) to avoid paying taxes for bringing back the ginseng.

Between the misunderstanding of Wong Fei-Hung facing an alleged thief in the train played by Lau Kar-Leung as Fu Wen-Chi and his wrongdoing over the whole missing ginseng, the sequel allows Chan to flex his comedy muscles with ease. His timing is impeccable and more so with the help of Anita Mui playing his stepmother. She brings worthy comic relief to her supporting role, even though it requires a suspension of disbelief to accept Anita Mui’s age was actually nine years younger than Chan, who was 40 years old at the time.

The same also goes with Ti Lung — believe it or not — only eight years older than Chan and yet, the former plays the role of a stern father. It was strange but true and yet, it all worked surprisingly well due to their committed performances.

The story gets progressively serious once Wong Fei-Hung learns the truth about Fu Wen-Chi and his subsequent help to retrieve the precious Imperial Jade Seal. This leads to an impressive teahouse fight against the thugs. At one point, we see Chan fend them off using a fractured bamboo pole smeared with alcohol, resulting in some of the most intense brawls ever seen in a Jackie Chan film. Chan doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of facing mortal danger, which helps to drum up the stakes after a series of playful action-comedy vibes in the earlier scenes.

That's an actual bed of red-hot coals in "Drunken Master II" (1994)
That’s an actual bed of red-hot coals in “Drunken Master II” (1994)

The high stakes continue during the final 20 minutes — easily the best part of the sequel, which reportedly took four months to complete the shoot. There were injuries on set and one of the dangerous stunts involved Chan actually falling into a bed of hot coals (and no, those are not fake props).

The final fight is truly a standout — an elaborate duel between Wong Fei-Hung’s drunken boxing and John’s high-kicking prowess. Ken Lo, who plays the latter, gives his all in one of his best on-screen fights ever seen. Interestingly, Korean-American actor Pak Ho-Sung, who plays John’s right-hand man Henry, was originally enlisted to play the main villain but Ken Lo eventually took over after he injured his ankle during the filming.

You can see Chan certainly goes all out in the final fight, combining his masterful action direction with dynamic camerawork all around. I remember watching Drunken Master II <醉拳II> in the cinema when it was first released in 1994. It was a full house and not surprisingly so since a Jackie Chan film released during the Lunar New Year back in the day was always a must-see movie event.

Drunken Master II <醉拳II> took home the much-deserved Best Action Choreography at the 14th Hong Kong Film Awards. Look out for Andy Lau in a cameo appearance as a counter-intelligence officer. He would later star in Jackie Chan-less Drunken Master III <醉拳III> six months later with Lau Kar-Leung directing the unfortunately inferior (but unrelated) third entry.

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