Right now there is a strong push towards equal representation in the movies. Specifically, more leading roles for women and minorities in major motion pictures. This is a good thing. I do, however, find it kind of hard to stomach some of the cynical self-congratulation that comes along with this movement. It's just hard to watch these powerful (mostly white male) producers and studio executives pat themselves on the back for helping "break the glass ceiling" now, when it's a popular thing to do, while they were the same people who had constructed that ceiling in the first place. It's especially hard to take because Hollywood, as usual, is well behind the rest of the world. I'm happy that "Wonder Woman" was such a huge success, but am I just supposed to pretend that "La Femme Nikita" wasn't a major international money maker in the early 90's? Or forget that Pam Grier was a cultural phenomenon thanks to her work in independent American films in the 70's? And I haven't even gotten into the long, proud tradition of female ass kickers who have graced the screen in Hong Kong productions for over 50 years at this point. That legacy began to take shape when Shaw Brothers Studio released "Come Drink With Me" in 1966.
This is the story of Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-Pei) and her quest to save her brother, who has been kidnapped by a pale-faced, slightly androgynous villain called Jade Faced Tiger (Chan Hung-lit). Along the way she's aided by a beggar called Drunk Cat (Yueh Hua) who is far more than he appears. Right away there's an obvious reversal of traditional gender roles. This time the sister is tasked with saving the brother, who appears incapable of fighting for himself. It's become a recurring theme in these articles for me to point out that the plot is not all that important to the film, and once again this is the case. Really if you're gonna watch this movie, you're gonna be watching to see the fights. Director King Hu was smart enough to give each of his set pieces a slightly different feel to it. There's a scene in an inn that's a bit like a kung fu version of the cliche scene in a western where the hero arrives in town and is tested by local thugs. Then there's a showdown in a temple where Swallow clashes with Tiger and his goons in fantastical kung fu fashion--running up walls, leaping great distances and stuff like that. Then there's a climactic battle of clans with dozens of extras and swordplay that looks like it might've been inspired by the Japanese samurai films of the era.
At the time of it's release, and for several decades after, films of this type were largely dismissed as poorly made schlock by stuffy western critics. Even fans of the genre tended to see them more as campy fun than something worthy of real respect. This was partly because of the terrible English dubbing associated with the genre for many years. But also because they were seen mostly in beat up prints or panned and scanned VHS tapes. With proper restorations now readily available on disc and streaming services, it's easier for us to appreciate the great craft the best of these films display. When viewed in it's proper "Shawscope" aspect ratio, you can see that "Come Drink With Me" is filled with painterly compositions, expressive lighting, colorful costumes, and elaborately detailed set designs. Look at the still below this paragraph. If you cropped that down to a 4:3 frame you'd lose all sense of the spatial relationships between the characters. In an extremely in-depth analysis of the visual language in Shaw Brothers films, the great critic and film scholar David Bordwell goes so far as to count the individual frames in a sequence to show that Hu's editing patterns even have a mathematical precision to them (see the gif above).
Despite what ignorant critics might have thought, the test of time has proven that Hong Kong cinema was actually far ahead of the rest of the world in staging, photographing, and editing fight scenes at the time. For one thing, people bleed when they get hit with a blade. Blood sprays from their wounds, stains their swords, and splashes onto clean white robes. While CGI was decades away, and wire work hadn't advanced to the point of being an effective tool, Hu still uses every trick in the book to enhance his fights. Jump cuts, undercranking, hidden trampolines, extreme closeups. Characters are made to look like they're moving with superhuman speed, or striking with exaggerated force through elliptical edits. One character hits another in close quarters, then we cut to a wide shot and they're ten feet apart. As if they've been blown backwards in an instant (gif below). It's a borderline impressionistic technique. You see the beginning, you see the end, and your imagination fills in the blank. The power is implied by the cut.
The fight choreography isn't as elaborate as what we'd see by the 1980's in the films of Jackie Chan and his contemporaries. It's more deliberately executed and can look more like a dance at times. And indeed, King Hu was said to have planned out his action sequences with a musical rhythm in mind. Pei-Pei was even cast in the lead because of her background as a ballerina. If you're used to later examples of the genre this kind of choreography can look kind of lousy by comparison. But once you're able to adjust yourself to the different rhythms it does have a few benefits in my estimation. For one thing, the slower steps make it easier for a layman like myself to follow along with what they're watching. For more dramatic purposes the more deliberate actions can be used to create suspense. As when two characters feel each other out, carefully measuring their next moves, before striking in sudden bursts of violence.
There are many comparisons that can be made between martial arts movies and superhero movies. Both genre's create elaborate mythologies about hero's with superhuman abilities standing up for those who can't fight for themselves. But the fundamental difference is in the way their abilities are presented. There are exceptions of course, but the basic superhero origin story involves the hero either being born with their powers or being gifted them in some freak accident or experiment. On the other hand the kung fu hero attains their power through a lifetime of training and discipline. To me, that makes the equality of the sexes in films like this more interesting. Golden Swallow isn't able to slice her way through dozens of male assailants because she's from some mythical realm or got bit by some magic insect, she can do it because she's worked harder and achieved a greater skill level than them. In that world, any other woman is capable of doing the same with the right training.
A direct sequel called "Golden Swallow" was made in 1968. By that point King Hu had left the studio--moving to Taiwan, where he was afforded more creative freedom--so they entrusted the production to Chang Cheh, who would go on to become arguably their greatest director. It's an extremely fun film in it's own right, but Cheh was known to favor a more macho brand of action. So the character of Swallow was pushed more to the background in favor of leading man Jimmy Wang Yu. It's unfortunate that her revolutionary heroine was treated so poorly, but Cheng Pei-Pei continued working for decades. She even played the villain Jade Fox in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" where she got to share the screen with Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, two stars whose careers might never have happened without Pei-Pei paving the way for them. And that's the legacy of "Come Drink With Me" in a nutshell. Everybody who enjoys watching women kick ass on screen--whether you prefer "Lady Snowblood" or "Kill Bill" or "Captain Marvel"--owes this film, and King Hu, and Chang Pei-Pei, a debt of gratitude.