Judge Kristin Munson is leaving this space for the inappropriate "Golden Swallow" joke of your choice.
You had me at "sword-wielding heroine."
A sword-wielding heroine, secret codes in song, fans that conceal a poison sting—Come Drink with Me should have been a backboard-shattering slam dunk. Instead, the film strings together fight scenes like beads on an abacus that don't add up to anything.
Facts of the Case
A deadly gang of martial arts bandits has ambushed a traveling party of dignitaries and taken the governor's son hostage. They aren't completely ruthless, so they propose a trade: the governor's son for their imprisoned leader. The only person they fear is a warrior called Golden Swallow, but what the bandits don't know is that the Swallow isn't a he but a she (Cheng Pei-Pei, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and she's got a pair of short swords that say the bandits are in a lot of trouble.
The Mandarin title for Come Drink with Me translates as "Drunken Hero," which would explain why the story wanders away from Swallow's rescue mission halfway through to focus on her tipsy mentor's feud with an evil monk.
Golden Swallow gets the spotlight on the DVD cover and all the critical praise, but compared to other cinematic women with swords, she's an amateur. She has one fight scene where she trounces the bandits and spends the rest of the movie being rescued by the village drunk. Okay, so the guy has a secret Kung Fu past and knows Qi Gong, but even Luke Skywalker gets to be the hero at some point. Golden Swallow keeps making the same mistakes over and over and getting bailed out at the last minute.
The problem is there isn't much to the plot. The captured son is just an excuse to kick start the action sequences, and once Swallow tracks down the bandits, the movie becomes a long parade of wire-work and sword-fights. They're unique and well-choreographed—from rooftop chases to tavern throw downs—but they can't keep the adrenalin pumping hard enough to distract you from the fact that nothing's really happening.
For a Shaw Brothers production, there isn't much camp factor, unless you count the fey villain, who dresses like a geisha and acts like a sociopath. The Final Bad Guy battle, to steal a term from Dave and Mac, isn't anything cooler or more spectacular than the rest of the action, and a second Final Bad Guy fight seems like it was thrown together because there were some extra squibs lying around the set.
Cheng Pei-Pei was 19 when the movie was made, and she's still obviously getting the hang of acting. She has a tendency to open her mouth and eyes as wide as they go to show surprise, but in fight scenes she's elegantly ferocious. Yueh Hua is a convincing Drunken Cat, both in his comic relief and Kung-Fu guru role, even though his character is meant to be much older (he only has six years on Pei-Pei).
What the DVD for Come Drink with Me does have is a nice chunk of bonus features. Four interview segments focus on behind-the-scenes experience on the set and at Shaw Brothers, heaping mounds of praise on the film without saying much about what actually makes it so revolutionary. I'm sure it's obvious to Kung Fu aficionados, but what about the rest of us? I'm here for the steel-swinging warrior woman; lure me into your genre while you have my attention.
Bey Logan is obviously passionate about Kung Fu movies, but he can't settle down and get to the point, dropping the movie title so many times in his interview you'd think he was getting paid by the utterance. Logan's also on the dry commentary, where he's less interested in talking about the movie than pointing out actors he recognizes, with Pei-Pei correcting his pronunciation.
The audio options give you the choice of a fluid 5.1 English dub or stiffer but more accurate subtitles with mono soundtrack. The subtitles are a little awkward (and unintentionally funny, what with Swallow always talking about her "thing") but the dub changes the meaning of conversations, even entire plot points.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
King Hu's direction is phenomenal. He uses all kinds of shots from all sorts of angles and each scene is composed with an amazing eye for detail, Actors don't just stand around waiting for their turn to fight the hero, they're actually doing things in the background and he uses the letterbox format to its fullest. With a sword in each hand, Golden Swallow battles bandits right and left (sometimes at the same time), twirling from one end of the screen to the other.
The restored picture is gorgeous, especially during the nighttime fight scene and in the natural scenery of the rural filming locations.
If only there was some actual meat to this martial arts tale, it could have been more than just a visual feast. Instead, the end product is like a reproduction katana: visually cool but without any heft.
After all the effort that went into this disc, Genius deserves to go free.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Commentary by Cheng Pei-Pei and Bey Logan
Review content copyright © 2008 Kristin Munson; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.