I bought The Legend of Drunken Master because I'd read a review of it on a Gawker website, and it convinced me I was missing out. I think I saw it playing on TV once, maybe during the climactic fight scene, and either couldn't figure out what was going on, or couldn't get in to Jackie Chan staggering around drunk and pink-faced as a newborn baby. Time having hopefully cured me of such foolishness, I tried it for real.
Chan's playing Wong Fei-Hong, who I think is meant to be fairly young in this film. On a trip for medicinal supplies with his father, Dr. Wong, Fei-Hong tries to sneak some ginseng past the duties collector by stashing in among the effects of one of the British Ambassador's retinue. While trying to retrieve it later, he runs into a cranky old man after a package wrapped exactly the same, which turns out to contain one of the Emperor's jade seals. Naturally, they get the two switched, which gets Fei-Hong in trouble as he becomes a mark for gangsters, since the old man was able to stay out of sight.
Which establishes one of the other running conflicts in the film: the problems Fei-Hong's own ego causes him. He was spotted because he chased after the old man (who turned out to be a legendary Manchu general, Fu Wen-Chi), even though he believed he had retrieved the ginseng. Because the old man struck him once, and Fei-Hong couldn't let that "insult" go. He's a good fighter, though not as good sober as he thinks, and he kind of likes to show off (To be fair, if I could move like Jackie Chan, I would also take any opportunity to show off). At the same time, his father has forbidden him from fighting, and especially from drunken boxing, which is Fei-Hong's specialty. So he tries to respect his father's wishes, but keeps finding himself in situations where he has to, frequently at the encouragement of his stepmother, Ling (Anita Mui). Yet every time he tries to fight, it seems to make things worse. Someone dies, his family suffers, he fails to accomplish his goals. He needs to find a balance, as well as the right time to fight.
Ling is probably my favorite character in the whole film. She's so varied in how she behaves. Around Dr. Wong, she can be both the dutiful wife, and as sneakily manipulative or overdramatic as the situation requires. She treats the family servant, Cho, like garbage (pretty much how Zapp treats Kiff on Futurama - 'Prepare to take the blame. . . NOW!'), and is a real shark at mahjong, but only when her husband isn't looking. And she alternately dotes, protects, and encourages Fei-Hong. When Fu Wen-Chi shoes up looking for him, she comes out swinging, but immediately plays the terrified wife when Dr. Wong comes to investigate the commotion. When Dr. Wong is furious at a wasted Fei-Hong, she tries to deflect the anger to herself, and when it looks like he'll actually strike her, she shouts that she's pregnant. Then immediately begins trying to fling herself onto her stomach, leading her husband to make all sorts of last second catches. It should probably be horrible, but it's hilarious. She's utterly shameless, and it's glorious.
One thing I thought was kind of interesting was Fei-Hong almost never fights British people, even though they're the ones trying to smuggle out the antiquities. He spends most of his time fighting other Chinese people, though there are a couple of guys who read as Australian to me (the guy who attacks Fei-Hong with a hot chain near the end is one). The one time he's actually fighting British people, it's less a fight, and more like that scene from For A Few Dollars More where Indio's entire gang kicks the crap out of Clint Eastwood and Lee van Cleef simultaneously. Which is guess is right out of the imperialism handbook: Don't fight yourself, unless everything is in your advantage. Otherwise, pit the local people against each other by appealing to greed, or recruit from your own economic underclass.
The fights are fantastic, as you might expect. The way some of these guys can move and bend, the angles they can throw punches and kicks from, or dodge punches and kicks from, it's astounding. Like I said, if I could do that stuff, I would show off all the time.