Come Drink With Me
Director: King Hu
Shaw Brothers Studio
Synopsis: When the Governor’s son is kidnapped and held for ransom by a fierce, sociopathic gang of criminals, his constable sister endeavors to rescue him. Along the way she encounters a very strange beggar whose quest might just overlap with hers.
Overview: David Fincher once famously said that he doesn’t believe “there are a million ways to shoot a scene.” Rather, that “there are two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.” It’s a sentiment that legendary kung-fu director King Hu might very well have agreed with. Every Hu shot is a perfectly discrete object, communicating no more than it has to, but always communicating something. There’s no overflow between the images, either; none of his film’s beats, be they emotional or kinetic (as if there was a difference) are ever repeated, recontextualized, or presented from a different angle. Hu directs as as if each film came accompanied by a contractual note from his studio, Shaw Brothers, providing him with a limit on the number of shots he was allowed to include. The result of this strategy is that watching each Hu film is like staring at a gestalt: you’re never sure whether you’re looking at pieces or a whole. And in the case of his 1966 opus, Come Drink With Me, you’ll be lucky if you ever have a good bead on what’s going on.
This is a strange movie, but it’s not a “strange movie.” There’s some silly stuff (including some straight-up airbending), but watch any given five minutes and it should all scan fairly lucid. Instead, Come Drink With Me is a slow bloom head-scratcher: mind-pulverizing when it’s over but more than agreeable in the moment.
Consider, for example, how our hero is introduced. After drafting a ransom note for their hostage, the governor’s son, the film’s villains sit back and consider the only entity capable of disrupting their evil: the fabled Golden Sparrow. “Can’t wait to meet him,” smiles our mincing, reverse-minstrel-faced lead baddy. Smash cut to Golden Sparrow: a woman. Okay, fair enough, he hasn’t met her before, so it’s only natural that he— a demonstrably evil man— also be a misogynist, and therefore assume that any threat worth taking seriously would need to be of male origin. But it doesn’t end there. Over the next hour Golden Sparrow is not once referred to by the correct pronoun, even by other good guys, even to her face. Pointedly, it’s right when she’s at her weakest that we first hear her called “miss.”
Feminist critique on the systematic destruction of women? Perhaps. It’s a tempting lens through which to view the scenes where she wanders the empty hotel at night, tormented by a verifiable manic-pixie-nightmare man-child who hides her clothing. But then what if I told you that Golden Sparrow ends up being subordinated to him as as the film’s central protagonist? What then? Narratively inept or subtextually ingenious? WHO KNOWS.
Irrespective of weird gender politics, Come Drink With Me is a fascinating entry not just in the kung-fu genre, but world cinema. Action scenes are often interrupted for curious asides, as when the film comes to a complete dead stop just so that our hero can purchase a hotel room. Narrative is largely relegated to the bookends, as the film spends most of its time in curious reverie. The film has two (two!) completely diegetic musical numbers, one of which is rumored to feature a young Jackie Chan. And as befits the title, alcohol— specifically wine— plays a huge role. But the words “Come Drink With Me” also function as a request for geniality, and their tentatively diplomatic spirit bleed into the work as a whole. Mercy comes easy, but does it stick?
Ideally, Come Drink With Me would be viewed as part of a double-feature with one of the comparatively conventional Shaw Brothers martial arts films on Netflix (I recommend 8 Diagram Pole Fighter), better than to appreciate the enigmatic wonder of the former.
Featured Image: Shaw Brothers Studio