There are certain movies that perfectly encapsulate a moment in cinema, and the most exciting of those are the movies that seem to capture a confluence of cultural transitions in mid-turn, the product of several spontaneous reactions. King Hu's 1965 kung fu drama Come Drink With Me might not be the movie that "started" the explosion of martial arts cinema in the late 1960s, but its prominence at the vanguard of Shaw Brothers Studios' full-tilt commitment to the wuxia genre, during a time when the very styles of studio filmmaking were also in revolution, is profound and its influence is still being felt today.
Cheng Pei-Pei stars as Golden Swallow, a warrior with a fearsome reputation sent to negotiate the release of her brother, who has been kidnapped by bandit gang. This run-of-the-mill kung fu plot is distinguished primarily by the artful directorial approach of Hu, who infuses the patient style of traditional high-class studio dramas, with grand sets and spectacularly photographed locations, with the energy of the impending martial arts movie boom. Hu cast Cheng for her skill as a dancer, and her captivating, star-making performance is central to Hu's graceful use of wire-fu as both a lyrical and a deadly expression of action. While Cheng's role demands that she keep her personality carefully restrained, that results in effective emotional releases when she is able to let loose just a little. With Cheng at the core, the rest of the cast fills their tropey roles with sophistication, making them still fresh and compelling 50 years later, from Yueh Hua as a mysterious beggar who seems to know too much about Golden Swallow's adversaries, to Lee Wan-chung as a chronically smiling villain in white pancake makeup.
The engaging action in Come Drink With Me is largely weapons-based, and derives its tension from Hu's strong characterizations and his slow-burning dramatic tone rather than fight choreography. Hu's style is often credited as one of the primary inspirations for Ang Lee's international hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While Hu's 1971 epic A Touch of Zen has the more obvious points of comparison, Lee cast Cheng as his movie's primary villain, the Jade Fox.
Come Drink With Me (1966) was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Rick Winters, who can be found on Flickchart under the username AudreyKarloff. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #1359 / 2585 (47%) and as his 10th favorite wuxia film out of 17. On my chart, Come Drink With Me (1966) ranked at #558 (85%), which makes it my third favorite wuxia movie, out of seven.