When Jackie Chan and his fellow students (his "brothers") completed Peking Opera school, it was not surprising that they had trouble finding work suited to their skills. After all, the focus of their studies was physical training and performance, which took precedence over academics. Eventually, Jackie and a few of his Peking Opera brothers (most famously, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah) found moderate success as stuntmen. All four of them came to work on movies showcasing the rising star, Bruce Lee.
Following Lee's untimely death and the release of his first starring American role, Enter the Dragon, in 1973, Bruce Lee became an international household name. Hong Kong and American audiences wanted to see more, but with Lee gone, studios had to look elsewhere. Unfortunately, the majority of these studio execs wanted to replace Lee, sometimes quite literally, by naming actors Bruce Li or Bruce Le. Other actors would simply attempt to replicate Lee's mannerisms (e.g., that wonderful face he would make when he was truly angered), or studios would cash in on old footage of the star, such as his short-lived TV series, The Green Hornet, being reedited into two feature length films (focusing on Lee, of course), The Green Hornet (1974) and Fury of the Dragon (1976).
When Jackie Chan finally moved from extra/stuntman/supporting player to starring role, he worked with director Lo Wei, who'd helmed Lee's hugely successful Hong Kong movies, The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972). According to Chan, Lo took credit for at least some of Lee's success and resulting popularity. Not surprisingly, Lo wanted Chan to be another Bruce Lee (one of their early films together was the 1976 New Fist of Fury). Chan's resistance to emulating another actor led to many disagreements between star and director, and Lo blamed their string of disappointing box office results on Chan's stubbornness.
Chan, however, soon proved that he was not the reason for the failures. The very first time Chan was "loaned" to another studio, he and a young director named Yuen Woo-ping made Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978), in which Chan was finally able to display his knack for comedy and stunningly choreographed fight sequences. Director Yuen, who also attended Peking Opera school, would achieve great success later as a filmmaker and action choreographer (and is, sadly, only known in the U.S. as the choreographer of the overrated The Matrix (1999) and Ang Lee's 2000 film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Snake in the Eagle's Shadow was a success, but it was Yuen and Chan's second picture together (filmed just a few months later), Drunken Master, that made Jackie Chan a star. Both films starred Yuen Woo-ping's father, Yuen Siu Tien. With these films began Chan's comic, kung fu style, as well as the injuries he would sustain in the years to come. In Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, the actor had his arm slashed open by a sword and one of his teeth knocked out, and he nearly lost an eye while filming Drunken Master.
The deal with Seasonal Films (the studio to which Chan was loaned) was only for two pictures, so the star went back to working with Lo Wei. When Chan tried to join the Golden Harvest studio, Lo reportedly attempted to involve triads (the Chinese criminal organization, similar to the Mafia), which unfortunately controlled much of the Hong Kong film industry. The dispute was eventually settled, with the help of actor/director Jimmy Wang Yu. Chan's first film with Golden Harvest (and away from Lo Wei) was one that he co-wrote and directed, The Young Master, in 1980. It eclipsed the box office records held by Bruce Lee's movies. By the time Chan made Police Story in 1985, he was internationally famous.
Wong Fei Hung was an actual person, a legendary Chinese folk hero. He was a martial artist, a physician, and a teacher who dedicated his life to helping the poor and the weak (Chan referred to him as a "Chinese Robin Hood"). Before Chan first portrayed Wong in Drunken Master, Kwan Tak Hing had played the character in approximately 90 films. When he was around 75 years young, Kwan played Wong Fei Hung again in The Magnificent Butcher (1979) and Dreadnaught (1981), the former film which starred Chan's Peking Opera brother, Sammo Hung, and both films which were directed by Yuen Woo-ping and starred another of Chan's brothers, Yuen Biao. The "drunken boxing" which Chan displays in Drunken Master is Zui Quan, which, literally translated, means "drunken fist." It consists of the fighter utilizing movements giving the appearance of drunkenness. This form allows for fluid motions for attack and various distractions to confuse the opponent. Being drunk is not necessarily a prerequisite, but, as the film suggests, it helps considerably.
In 1991, Jet Li starred in his own series of Wong Fei Hung movies, Once Upon a Time in China, directed by Tsui Hark. The star and director made two more films together, and Vincent Zhao took over the role in parts IV and V, the latter film which was also helmed by Tsui. Sammo Hung directed Li in the sixth installment, Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997). Chan performed the song for the closing credits of Once Upon a Time in China II (1992).
Sixteen years after Drunken Master, in 1994, Chan reprised Wong Fei Hung in Drunken Master II. The sequel not only surpassed the original, it's also one of Jackie Chan's greatest films, with splendid comic antics, thrilling fight sequences, and a scene-stealing Anita Mui. The movie was released theatrically in the States in 2000 (after a string of Chan's Hong Kong films were playing to great success on American screens) as The Legend of Drunken Master, cut, dubbed, and re-scored, which, sadly, was a fate that befell the majority of Hong Kong films in the U.S. However, even most Hong Kong DVD copies are either of poor quality, cut, or a combination thereof. Uncut versions really only have one additional sequence, which concludes the film and is, admittedly, a scene of rather paltry taste. Good quality copies of Drunken Master II with the final scene intact are rare and highly sought after commodities. I own such a copy, and yes, I'm bragging.
Random trivia: In this month's Bond Is Forever, I'd mentioned Yuen Qiu, who had a small part in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), starring in Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle (2004) as the landlady. Her husband is played by Yuen Wah, who had attended Peking Opera school with Jackie Chan.