- Legacies of the Drunken Master: Politics of the Body in Hong Kong Kung Fu Comedy Films by Luke White
Legacies of the Drunken Master is a highly structured, tightly planned, and well-written application of theory in critique of Hong Kong kung fu comedy films from the 1970s and their thematic legacy through the present. Luke White is very specific in his choice of theories and appropriately circumspect in the application thereof, which are lucidly described and consistently applied throughout his analysis. He couches his approach well, choosing which theories to both apply and engage with, as well as why he so chooses, and he builds the structure of his interpretation with his goal(s) throughout clearly stated: [End Page 121]
The question I would like to address in this book, then, is how the Hong Kong kung fu comedy film responds or reacts to its moment in time. Drawing on the insight of cultural studies into popular culture, and approaching the films from a fundamentally left-wing perspective, I am interested in investigating the extent to which, alongside forces within them that seem to reinforce the dominant ideologies of the moment in which they were made, they might also harbor moments of rebellion or resistance—if, perhaps, not of downright "protest" or revolution,(p. 15)
In the process of establishing his analytical framework, White surveys the critical field and its trends over the past decades in both his introduction and throughout the body of the study, which is finely illuminating even if the reader may or may not agree with the author's choice of theories or assessments. White notes in the introduction that he is "unashamedly 'theoretical'" (p. 18), as he contextualizes his choices while acknowledging the state of film studies '"theory wars' of the late 1980s and early 1990s" and the general trends of film theory. White's chosen discursive space lies in "European cultural Marxism, Frankfurt School critical theory, gender studies and postcolonial theory" (p. 19).
The author identifies two films directed by Yuen Woo-ping and starring Jackie Chan that initiated the kung fu comedy "event" in the 1970s, Drunken Master (1978) and Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978), marking a contrast to Bruce Lee's more seriously ethnonationalistic kung fu works of the time. These two films, and the films that compose their kung fu comedy legacy, are thoroughly detailed throughout the study and analyzed vis-a-vis critical theory of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno (cartoonesque film violence), Michel Foucault (legacy and genealogy), Mikhail Bakhtin (carnivalesque), and a number of other critics, including Sigmund Freud and Jean-Martin Charcot's analyses of "hysteria." The chapter structure in this study is centered around these critical topics (Carnival, Utopia, Violence, Hysteria, and Masculinity) as an exploration of the elements that compose the legacies of kung fu comedy, on which White focuses in the final chapter of the book. I appreciate this choice and the visioning as an exploration because the reader is also engaged in exploration that does not necessarily require thorough grounding in the author's chosen critical lens, especially since White provides sufficient explication of such theoretical background throughout the study. White envisions his work as an engagement with both theory and kung fu comedy films, and this engagement is fully and faithfully implemented throughout the study. Importantly, the author frames the act of critique and the conversation that ensues as an engagement between theory and subject, as he proceeds "to think through whether and in what ways comic kung fu bodies continue or reverse the anticolonial wishes of the heroic kung fu era" (p. 16).
In chapter 1, "Carnival," the author uses Bakhtin's writing on the "grotesque body" and carnival to demonstrate the departure of kung fu comedy [End Page 122] body from the earlier nationalistic "heroic, epic, or tragic" body in Hong Kong film, first examining Bruce Lee's film, Fist of Fury (1972) to situate...