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The Real Drunken Master: Yuen Siu-tin (1912-1980)

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Drunken Master (1978): Yuen Siu-tin (left) & Jackie Chan

On Saturday night, Films at the Gate will feature Jackie Chan’s DRUNKEN MASTER. Check out the full schedule of films here, or read on as Films at the Gate Curator Jean Lukitsh introduces the real drunken master behind Saturday’s film:

Jackie Chan’s DRUNKEN MASTER (1978) is one of the best-loved kung fu comedies of all time. The story is very loosely based on the oral traditions of the Hung Gar school about a famous kung fu expert named Wong Fei-hung. The real Wong Fei-hung died in 1924, but his exploits have been inspired dozens of films. For DRUNKEN MASTER, Jackie Chan and his director, Yuen Woo-ping, decided to have a little fun with the legendary hero. They re-imagined Wong Fei-hung as a naughty teen whose high spirits and lack of restraint exasperates the adults around him. The joke was appreciated by Hong Kong audiences used to seeing Wong portrayed as an austere patriot.

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Thundering Red Rose (1963): Yuen Siu-tin at left.

For Chan’s comic foil in the film, Yuen Woo-ping (best known for choreographing KILL BILL, the MATRIX films, and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) called in his own father, a veteran kung fu actor. Yuen Siu-tin (also known as Yuan Xiaotian) had been working in films since the late 1920s. His career started in Shanghai, the first Chinese film capitol, when he was hired to choreograph and stunt perform in a series of swordplay films by the pioneer action filmmaker Ren Pengnian (Yam Pang-nin). Ren’s wife, the martial arts actress Wu Lizhu, was the star of the films. Ren and Wu emigrated to Hong Kong shortly before World War II, and Yuen Siu-tin followed them after the war. Soon all three were working together again in the local film industry.

Yuen Siu-tin became one of Hong Kong’s top kung fu movie choreographers, joining an elite group called the “Dragon Tiger Masters.” He worked on dozens of martial arts and action films from the late 1940s through the 1960s. His sons, including Woo-ping, followed him into the profession. For DRUNKEN MASTER, Yuen Siu-tin stepped into a rare leading role. He plays the disreputable Beggar So, an unconventional kung fu master who whips Jackie’s bad boy into shape. Despite being over forty years older than Chan, Yuen Siu-tin is a worthy adversary. His comic timing and adroit way with the action choreography (he’s sometimes stunt-doubled by his son Brandy Yuen) contributed greatly to the success of the film. Yuen went on to reprise the Drunken Master role in at least a half dozen other films before his death in 1980.

ALL THE PEOPLE OF ONE MIND (1948), directed by Ren Pengnian, starring Wu Lizhu, and with Yuen Siu-tin playing a Japanese soldier.