Kung-Fu on the Virtue of the Unorthodox
It was 1973 and the Hong Kong-based martial arts film industry had a problem. Its biggest star, the charismatic Bruce Lee, had died unexpectedly in May, and, with his final film, Enter the Dragon, cementing itself as a worldwide box office phenomenon and its star as a martial arts icon, there was a global audience clamoring for more, but no actor that could match Lee’s mystique or martial arts prowess. The man slated to become the next superstar, Chan Kong-sang, had previously been Lee’s stuntman in Enter the Dragon and had his stage named changed to Sing Lung (translated to “become the dragon”) to underscore his connection to the late martial arts superstar. But Sing Lung’s films were floundering: he couldn’t escape the Lee comparisons and had difficulty recreating Lee’s signature fighting style. By 1978 his career seemed to be on life support – he was having little success at the box office and, without an audience, had no way to forge his own path to martial arts stardom.
However, that same year, director Yuen Woo-ping, who would later go on to find international acclaim by choreographing such movies as The Matrix and Kill Bill, decided to give Sing Lung, who was now going by Jackie Chan, the freedom to do all of his own stunt work for their new film, The Drunken Master. The movie was a surprise hit and launched Chan to a decades-long, continent-spanning acting career that saw him become one of the world’s most recognizable names. Which, after watching The Drunken Master, is strange – the movie doesn’t immediately come to mind as a box office smash, or the launching pad for a long and lucrative career. There isn’t much of a plot to follow. Rather loosely, it tells the story of a rowdy young Kung-Fu trainee, played by Jackie Chan, that is sent to go train with a local drunk, So Hai, to learn discipline. But there’s also some kind of land dispute that leads the head of a local family to enlist the help of an assassin, named Thunderleg, to kill Jackie Chan’s father.
So Hai puts Jackie Chan’s character through a rigorous program of physical exercise, but Chan is eventually fed up by the lack of actual Kung-Fu being taught. After being attacked by the “King of Bamboo,” So Hai finally agrees that it’s time for Jackie Chan to learn his secret brand of fighting with which he’s never lost a fight in 70 years. Thus begins Chan’s immersion into the program of the “8 Drunken Gods” – a series of Kung-Fu styles that require a serious amount of alcohol and a kind of drunken, staggering series of attacks. The irony wasn’t lost on this viewer that the story involves someone going to learn discipline, but learning how to fight drunk instead. But, to paraphrase So Hai himself, if they’re thinking you’re trying to lose, it’s easier to win.
Conventional categories of movie analysis don’t really work for The Drunken Master. Its dialogue is laughably bad (especially the dubbed version), character development is largely ignored, and there are basic plot devices that seem random and logically indefensible. But none of that matters. Chan’s stunts are balletic and the fight scenes are often jaw-dropping, executed with so much frenetic grace and precision that it was often hard to believe how they pulled them off at all. The movie concludes with a final showdown between Thunderleg, whose motto is 30% fists and 70% percent legs, and Jackie Chan’s character, who had taken a beating from Thunderleg earlier in the story, but is now equipped with his 8 Drunk Gods style.
Chan starts the fight by chugging liquor and then assumes his fighting stance: eyes half-closed, hands halfheartedly up in front of his face, and drunkenly swaying in place. And then, he proceeds to beat down Thunderleg, the deadliest fighter in the land, while even taking a mid-fight break to chug more liquor. The whole thing is deliriously fun, and, actually, a bit believable. For the drunken Kung-Fu style courts chaos; it’s unpredictable by being unorthodox. But Jackie Chan’s true virtuoso performance comes from being so good that he can effectively mimic being bad; in So Hai’s words, winning by trying to lose.
There’s a winking irony that happens when good actors pretend to be bad actors. This is something that a movie like The Disaster Artist embraces to the fullest, where we get to see professional actors go all in pretending to be terrible actors. We set aside a specific echelon of skill for this kind of performance since it takes a special understanding of nuance to be believably bad at something you’re actually quite good at. Especially when that subject is acting, where you have to be so good at pretending to be someone else that you end up needing to pretend to not be able to pretend anymore. It’s pretty complicated. But when done effectively, it can be mesmerizing for the same reason that a drunken Jackie Chan was able to send Thunderleg packing: the virtue of misrecognition.
Habit is a peculiar enemy. It’s impossible to imagine living without some semblance of routine, and even harder to imagine some sort of training that doesn’t involve repetition. The idea behind mastering anything, in essence, is to get to the point where it becomes like second nature, one can do it without thinking. Reflex is a good example of this because it indicates that certain things are so ingrained into the deepest crusts of our gray matter that the action is automatic, that there’s no difference between perception and action. Most competitive pursuits require a healthy mixture of habit and reflex. We train to make sure that our free throw technique stays the exact same, that our wrist snaps down correctly when serving a tennis ball, so that we’re not starting over from scratch every time we play again. But habit makes us predictable – it establishes the subtlest of bodily markers that give away ball placement or shot selection (or kick location). More alarming, perhaps, is that it guarantees that some of our life will be lived on auto-pilot.
Habit was something that the early Soviet art critic, Viktor Shklovsky, thought a lot about. Taking his cue from Tolstoy, who wrote about about not being able to remember whether or not he vacuumed his couch (he did), Shklovsky set a lofty goal for the function of art: to de-familiarize the world, to make us see it afresh. Habit, for Shklovsky, was the ultimate foe. It desensitized us to cruelty and moral failure, and forced us to live only semi-consciously of the world around us. Art was thus the answer as a different and strange way of relating to our surroundings; in Shklovsky’s own words, “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.”
Shklovsky, who died in 1984, would’ve loved The Drunken Master. For, at its core, Jackie Chan’s drunken onscreen exploits are a tribute to the un-orthodox, to the defibrillating effect of a failure of reflex. Thunderleg, who must calibrate his own movements so fast that he has no time to think, can no longer rely on reflex to show him what Chan will do next. The 8 Drunken Gods style is training in systemized chaos, which is almost impossible to plan for. Therein lies the paradoxical beauty of winning by trying to lose: it reminds us what it was like before we became numbed by the repetitiveness of habit, when we still weren’t accustomed to the world. Thunderleg probably remembers his first exposure to Kung-Fu, the pleasures of discovering a new activity in all its nuanced and complicated glory. Most of us remember the first time we saw or did something interesting. But what about the 100th time we do it? Or the 1,000th time? These things lose their shine, rubbed down by repetition to the point where we might not even register the tree on our daily commute that once stopped us in our tracks.
Misrecognition thus reminds us what it was like to see things before our eyes became trained to see them. Watching actors pretend to be bad at acting can wake us up to the actual labor of acting – fixating our attention on the quality performance which we previously accepted as a given. By the same logic, the unorthodox amongst us reveal the pitfalls of mastery: it robs us of the perspective by which things appear new, strange, and exciting. So, I like to think that Thunderleg, lying in the dirt after being leveled by a drunk Jackie Chan, was revaluating his life decisions. He was probably regretting his chosen career as an assassin, or at least the decision to accept his latest target. But really, deep deep down in his heart, he was probably grateful to Jackie Chan for making him feel like a beginner again because he got to see the world of Kung-Fu anew. Or he was knocked out and wasn’t thinking about anything.