‘Come Drink With Me’ Bends the Rules in its Quiet, Mighty Mysticism
King Hu’s third film for the Shaw Brothers studio Come Drink With Me was wildly popular at the time of release in 1967, and for good reason. He takes it into a direction where other martial arts films and filmmakers weren’t going at the time. It provides a fantasy grounded in the historical reality the Shaw Brothers studio is known for, but King Hu deliberately puts capable female characters into his films, directly challenging the unspoken status quo make-driven martial arts films take on by default. Those familiar with King Hu’s martial arts & wuxia masterpieces Dragon Inn & A Touch of Zen will recall their respective characters and the command they employ over others regardless of gender politics.
Come Drink With Me also takes more of a romantic and musical approach (in operatic fashion) to the martial arts film which is probably why it garnered so much popularity, making it more appealing to a wider audience. Other more straightforward approaches other Shaw Brothers films took featured stringing choreographed fight sequences together with the instance of plot, however small in some situations. They did well despite having a niche audience in mind, knowing well that those showing up for these movies was popular enough to bankroll the films. But King Hu’s approaches brought more representation to the forefront, disregarded heteronormative roles, and opened up accessibility to the format of the martial arts picture in a way that began to reflect modern audiences at the time.
At the start of the film the son of a governor is captured by bandits and held hostage as a bargaining chip to exchange for the return of their leader, imprisoned by the local government. Golden Swallow, a lone fighter-for-hire, is tasked with rescuing the governor’s son and bringing him back to safety. But the gang holding him captive prove dangerous adversaries to Golden Swallow and her fighting style, adaptive as it is, is no match for the overwhelming number of enemies. She befriends a local drunken wanderer, Drunken Cat, in town and as she spends more time with him, learns that he is not at all who he seems.
Traveling with a troupe of impoverished children, Drunken Cat frequents a local restaurant and the group literally sings for their supper. Hoping to earn enough to feed everyone in the group and get some wine in the process, Golden Swallow meets Drunken Cat at the restaurant after he overhears her asking about the men who kidnapped the governor’s son. Golden Swallow deciphers a coded message that instructs her to meet someone to gain more information about her prisoner, and from there a partnership is struck. Drunken Cat and Golden Swallow work together to plan an attack on the temple where her prisoner is said to be held, her kung-fu coached by a disguised master in the process.
Come Drink With Me has the element of a quiet, soft mysticism, which some kung-fu film fanatics will connect inevitably to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but the depiction of magical properties in King Hu’s feature deliberately fits into a grounded narrative. Drunken Cat and Golden Swallow’s relationship swells in operatic fashion, their professional relationship’s evolution rising up to compliment the normalized imagery of magic and the elements. There’s a calm beauty in watching a master sit and gaze into a waterfall, slowly guiding the mist flowing past him back towards the origin, swirling particles in the air returning to the air above the place it was sprung from. Come Drink With Me may not be exactly what anyone was expecting, but the way that it defies those expectations does so in relatively jaw-dropping fashion. It’s a film that everyone needs to see, and a filmmaker whose work deserves more celebration now than ever.
Come Drink With Me is now available to stream on Arrow Video’s SVOD platform, with a 30-day free trial offer (totally worth it!) and is also available on Blu-ray from their website (US Region A only).