If you’ve never seen a wuxia film, Come Drink With Me (Da zui xia, Hong Kong, 1966), directed by King Hu (using the name King Chuan), is a great introduction to the genre. It’s a classic from the 1960s with an uncomplicated plot, very entertaining action scenes, and many of the traditional elements of wuxia stories.
The film starts with a group of bandits attacking a caravan of soldiers and, after a bloody sword battle, capturing the son of the governor, a hostage they expect to trade for their leader, who has been imprisoned and is scheduled for execution. The person sent to negotiate with the bandits is a woman dressed as a man, none other than the governor’s daughter, known as Golden Swallow (interpreted by Cheng Pei-pei, who was the star of many martial arts movies in the 1960s and decades later became famous as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon).
The first confrontation between Golden Swallow and the bandits takes place in an inn, where Smiling Tiger Tsu Kan (Lee Wan-chung) and his men test her abilities. Wuxia heroes are often like superheroes, with superpowers related to reflexes and dexterity, and of course martial arts skills. A display of these capabilities can be used to flabbergast opponents (and to entertain audiences) and Golden Swallow doesn’t shy away from showing a few jaw-dropping tricks with some coins and chopsticks. After that she uses a pair of long daggers to quickly dispose of eight armed bandits. The fight scenes are very stylized, more dance than combat, but effective in establishing the heroine’s superiority and grace. That’s a recurring wuxia archetype, the nimble swordswoman who vanquish her enemies with efficacy and elegance.
Another very common character in wuxia fiction is the unassuming beggar who is actually a kung fu master in disguise. In Come Drink With Me, this role is filled by Fan Da-pei (Yueh Hua), aka Drunken Cat. He is a goofy singing and drinking beggar who travels around with a group of children (possibly including an uncredited 12-year-old Jackie Chan), and he saves Golden Swallow in more than one occasion. He also points her in the direction of the bandits hideout, where one of the best fight sequences of the movie takes place.
Golden Swallow confronts the bandits in the Buddhist temple were they are hiding, and has to face multiple opponents, including cosmetics-addicted villain Jade Faced Tiger (Chan Hung-lit), in a long fight that starts inside the temple and continues in the patio. After being poisoned by a dart, she escapes and is saved by Drunken Cat, who treats and shelters her. Their storylines turn out to be even more intertwined when it’s revealed that the abbott in charge of the bandit temple is his old nemesis Liao Kung (Yeung Chi-hing), who killed their master to steal a symbolic bamboo pole with a hanging gourd, now in Drunken Cat’s possession.
While Golden Swallow’s fights are based on physical prowess and sword skill, the clash between Drunken Cat and Liao Kung happens on a different level. They do exchange blows with their swords and staffs, but they also have a different weapon at their disposal. As one of the superpowers sometimes exhibited by wuxia heroes, they are capable of cultivating their internal energy (known as qi or chi) and externalizing it by projecting energy beams against each other (in Come Drink With Me, due to the limited visual effects capabilities of the 1960s, these energy beams look very much like jets of vapor coming out of their hands). So after Golden Swallow and her army of swordswomen confront Jade Faced Tiger and his bandits, it’s time for Drunken Cat and Liao Kung to have their final battle and determine who has the strongest chi and who will keep the sacred bamboo pole with the equally sacred hanging gourd.
Director King Hu (1932-1997) was a wuxia master, and Come Drink With Me (1966), together with Dragon Gate Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1971), left a solid mark in the genre and influenced generations of movie makers.