Dance of the Drunk Mantis (1979) Review

"Dance of the Drunk Mantis" Chinese Theatrical Poster

“Dance of the Drunk Mantis” Chinese Theatrical Poster

AKA: Drunken Master 2
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Writer: Lung Hsiao, See Yuen Ng
Producer: See Yuen Ng
Cast: Siu Tien “Simon” Yuen, Shun Yee “Sunny” Yuen, Hwang Jang Lee, Linda Lin, Corey Yuen, Yen Shi Kwan, Dean Shek
Running Time: 121 min.

By Chris Hatcher

When Siu Tien “Simon” Yuen first stepped onto the Asian cinema scene in 1947 at age 35, one of his earliest roles was as a thug in director Wu Pang’s The Story of Wong Fei-Hung, which featured Kwan Tak Hing in the legendary title role. Having trained in the traditional Peking Opera, Yuen was credited in more than 300 films spanning 30+ years before his untimely death in 1979. He played a variety of roles, from technical turns as stunt coordinator and fight instructor to bandits, cooks, mentors, and kung fu masters. However, none was more memorable than his late turn as the drunkard Beggar So (aka Sam Seed) in Jackie Chan’s 1978 smash hit comedy Drunken Master… a film that brought Yuen full circle by portraying him as the uncle to, none other than, Wong Fei Hung.

I tie the above preface to my review of Yuen’s final completed picture, Dance of the Drunk Mantis, so I can set the stage for explaining why I really love this film. Otherwise, you run the risk of seeing it and coming away with a mixed impression of an “Old Man Yuen” needing an obvious stunt double to perform 90% of his fight scenes, which is true. My hope is to turn this oft-times negatively regarded aspect into a positively endearing point of view that will help you see this film for what it truly is… a comedic masterpiece, rivaling the humor of Drunken Master and displaying some of the most technical, cool-as-the-other-side-of-the-pillow fight choreography in the genre. Not to mention, standing as an excellent showpiece for the ultra-talented Yuen Clan.

Reprising his role as Sam Seed, Yuen plays the red-nosed champion of southern Chinese drunken boxing made all the more potent by a good rice wine. His counterpart, the northern drunken boxing king Rubber Legs (Hwang Jang Lee, Yuen’s Drunken Master alum and all-around bad ass), has secretly combined his drunken skills with mantis kung fu and is in search of Sam for an old school smackdown. An early encounter with a Sam Seed imposter shows Rubber Legs and his apprentice (Corey Yuen) mean business in challenging Sam for the drunken boxing title.

Meanwhile, the real Sam returns home after several years away on a bender to find his irritable wife (the great Linda Lin, another Drunken Master alum) has adopted an adult son named Foggy (Shun Yee “Sunny” Yuen). He likes to scrap, but his kung fu is lousy as evident by the beating he takes from a shady banker (played by Dean Shek, the creepy King of Kung Fu Comedy). This prompts Ma Seed to suggest Sam teach their son drunken boxing, a proposition Sam cruelly accepts as a way to humiliate Foggy.

Watching Sam make his son fall from stilts or play a one-man game of Twister in the name of “training” is typical old school humor. But in an atypical move, the story takes a brief turn of pathos when Sam berates Foggy for being a stupid kid who can’t hold his liquor. The scene proves effective as Foggy blames himself for Sam’s cruelty and decides to leave home. (For the record, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is the most sentimentally deep old school film I’ve ever seen. And while that entire film is soaked in sorrow with virtually no humor (one of the reasons I absolutely love it), it was nice to see a comedy like DotDM aspire to hit a sentimental note like this.)

When Foggy barely survives an encounter with Rubber Legs and his apprentice after learning Sam is next on their hit list, he returns home to warn his father. This leads to one of the more renowned scenes in old school kung fu cinema… the restaurant showdown between Sam and Rubber Legs. It’s the highlight of DotDM as the duel begins innocently enough with the playful posturing of arm and hand locks over glasses of wine and ends in a full-on drunken brawl to the death (Yuen’s stunt man works overtime as the scene continuously shifts from close-ups of Yuen to fantastically staged fight choreography by his double). Luckily, when Rubber Legs pulls out his deadly drunken mantis fist and overpowers Sam, Foggy steps in to help dear old dad live to fight another day.

And we’re only two-thirds of the way through Dance of the Drunk Mantis by this point, with some of the most dynamic kung fu yet to come when Sam’s brother, Sickness (Yen Shi Kwan), secretly teaches Foggy his sick kung fu during Sam’s recovery. Looking like death warmed over, Uncle Sickness tells Foggy his kung fu can counter Rubber Legs’ mantis fist and the training sequences do not disappoint. They are so good, in fact, as to qualify DotDM with one of the better old school “zero to hero” transformations in Foggy, who displays some serious Chan-like acrobatics during his shift to stud status. He’s great in his rematch with the apprentice and ready for the challenge by the time Rubber Legs arrives to put Sam and Foggy in the ground for good.

The first big positive going for Dance of the Drunk Mantis is its director… the great Yuen Woo Ping, Simon Yuen’s eldest son. Everything he touches is branded with a mark of high quality, and DotDM is no exception. If you only know Yuen Woo Ping for his fight choreography on The Matrix trilogy, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the Kill Bill films, you’re truly missing out. His direction is stellar, ranging from modern day martial arts classics like Iron Monkey to classics of the old school era like Dreadnaught, The Magnificent Butcher, and the aforementioned Drunken Master (DotDM was promoted as DM’s unofficial sequel).

The second positive is the excellent mix of humor and martial arts skill… some of the best in the old school era. Some scenes sprinkle bits of excellent kung fu amidst a piece of great comedy, like the contentious “welcome home” match between Sam and his wife. The humor takes center stage as Sam dodges an assortment of slaps, kicks, broom strikes, and verbal jabs in a routine reminiscent of a Three Stooges skit. A scene like this could have come off as corny, but Yuen’s sad clown expressions and big toothy grins add an endearing quality to the whole thing. Seeing Yuen barely able to duck a kick in one scene followed by an immediate cut to his stunt double skillfully flipping out of harm’s way only adds to the charm. And there are several other equally funny scenes like this throughout the film.

Other scenes, such as the climactic battle between Foggy and Rubber Legs, showdowns between Ma Seed/Foggy and apprentice, and the ever-excellent restaurant brawl flip the formula and add touches of great comedy to masterful fight sequences. You’ll fully understand this notion when, in the midst of some amazing choreography, Rubber Legs’ mantis fist rips the pants off Sam and a bout of “sexy hips” kung fu takes place! Trust me when I say you’ll want to replay the restaurant scene multiple times just to admire how it builds from verbal grandstanding to technical showmanship to one of the all-time great duels of the genre. And no amount of stunt doubling can detract from it!

Then there’s Sunny Yuen, Corey Yuen, Linda Lin, Yen Shi Kwan, and the amazing Hwang Jang Lee… players who make Dance of the Drunk Mantis shine as a kung fu powerhouse from start to finish. Sunny, one of Yuen’s middle sons, does some of his best work in this one, as does Corey (who isn’t actually one of the Yuen family members); Lin is always skillful with some of the straightest leg kicks in the business; Kwan is a technical master in his handful of scenes; and Lee, who looks great as a Pai Mei archetype, delivers his signature crazy-leg kicks with an added mantis stance that looks wicked as hell!

And, finally, there’s Simon Yuen, who couldn’t have made it through DotDM without the aid of a very special Yuen Clan member… one of his youngest sons, Brandy, who we initially see as the Sam Seed imposter, but who we don’t “see” as his father’s dynamic stunt double. The notion of a son literally working in his aging father’s footsteps ups the endearment factor by tenfold, and helps eradicate any talk about his over-use hindering the film. In fact, Brandy Yuen was a highly regarded stunt coordinator/stunt man in Hong Kong back in his day, and it’s his skill that allows Dance of the Drunk Mantis to soar when other films under similar circumstances would have likely crashed and burned.

Sadly enough, Brandy’s completed work on the silver screen would go unseen by his father, who died of a heart attack five months prior to DotDM’s release while filming The Magnificent Butcher. Simon Yuen reprised his role as Sam Seed for the Yuen Woo Ping vehicle, which required reshoots of his scenes upon his death. He was replaced by Fan Mei Sheng, but the name “Sam Seed” was not used out of respect for the character Yuen had made famous. If for no other reason, see Dance of the Drunk Mantis and know you’re watching a performance by an actor who gave everything to his craft… right to the very end. You may just experience the same affection for the film’s excellent qualities as I did and love it!

Chris Hatcher’s Rating: 9/10

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One Response to Dance of the Drunk Mantis (1979) Review

  1. James says:

    As far as I’m concerned, this is an official sequel to Drunken Master. Same director, same producer, same studio, same villian, same other leading man!

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