To get a sense of an era in cinema, we often look at talent groups. Consider the “Movie Brat” generation of directors in the ’70s, or the “Brat Pack” and the rest of their generation of young American actors who rose to prominence in the ’80s. concentrated are perhaps the “Seven Little Fortunes”, students of the Chinese opera school of master Yu Jim Yuen. At one point the group included Yuen Mo, Yuen Wah, (Corey) Yuen Kwai, Yuen Biao and two students then called Yuen Lo and Yuen Lung, they would become better known as Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung Kam Bo.
Hung, the eldest of the Seven Little Fortunes, was the first to forge his way into Hong Kong’s film industry, giving his younger “brothers” some of their first jobs, but as they worked together from time to time in time, he and Jackie developed their own styles and their own stock companies. The two films in Eureka Video’s new double pack, 1978’s Warriors Two (only his third film as director) and 1981’s The Prodigal Son are Hung’s homage to the history and style of Wing Chun, and to one of his (semi-legendary) followers, Leung Tsan, portrayed as an older man in the first film and a brash youth in the second.
The Prodigal Son is, in many ways, a typical kung fu comedy. He sees Yuen Biao as a young Leung Tsan, who believes he is recognized in his town as “the street fighter”, taking on all comers and easily winning each of his fights. In fact, his father pays his opponents. Chan only finds out after a friend recruits him to fight opera star Leung Yee-tai (Lam Ching Ying) on his behalf. From there, the film follows a fairly typical story of training and revenge, spiced up with a bit of comedy, but it’s in storytelling that Hung excels.
Much of The Prodigal Son is as broad as other kung fu comedies of its time; there are the typical jester characters with silly makeup like very prominent moles and red noses who are there to indulge in comedy that seems very specific to local audiences. The wider comedy largely comes from Hung’s own role as Wong Wah-po, a friendly rival to Leung Yee-tai, who begins training Leung Tsan, eventually causing his friend to begin training him.” correct”. These training sequences are also very much in line with the book, but they allow us to better appreciate the intricacies of Wing Chun, which clearly has Hung excited about these two films.
However, where The Prodigal Son differs somewhat is in the investment and characterization it puts into its main cast. As Leung Tsan, Yuen Biao gives an amazingly layered performance. The hot-headed “street fighter” of the film’s first act is his broadest take on the role, this Leung Tsan is quick to anger and immediately turns to fighting to settle any disagreements. His movements reflect this; they are taller and wider than we will see later. As he begins to follow Leung Yee Tai, and especially when he begins to train in Wing Chun, Yuen Biao gives the character more discipline. Wing Chun is a largely contained style, and we see this reflected in Leung Tsan’s personality as he becomes more calculated both as a person and as a fighter. It’s a really interesting development, but not one that entirely sticks, as its rapidity to violence and anger returns in the film’s final section, for reasons we can understand.
One of the more interesting choices here is that the movie doesn’t have a traditional villain. Yes, there is a showdown between Yuen Biao and Frankie Chan’s Ngai Fei, but it’s not so simple that Ngai is the bad guy; instead, he is presented as a mirror image of Leung Tsan, albeit one whose martial arts have always been strong. The fight sequences are incredibly good. If the film has one weakness, it might be that the finale isn’t its strongest fight, but that’s no complaint when the rest of the action, be it Leung’s comedic sequence Yee-tai beating up an intruder backstage, while painting him. in a clown makeover or the brutal attack on the opera troupe, culminating in a ninja with a flaming flag attack Leung Yee-tai, it’s so good. However, it’s the fights involving Frankie Chan (best known a composer with over 120 film scores to his credit) that are all the timers here. His fight with James Tien, as a former challenger who has now trained the arm that wasn’t broken the last time they fought, is a good taster, but the close Wing Chun battle between him and Lam Ching Ying is maybe my single favorite fight. in this whole period of martial arts cinema: it’s graceful, complex and brilliantly executed.
For my money, The Prodigal Son is Sammo Hung’s crowning achievement in classic martial arts cinema. It’s a staple for anyone exploring the genre for the first time, and if for some reason more seasoned fans haven’t seen it, it’s the perfect way to do so.
An interesting quirk compared to the old Hong Kong Legends DVD is that the print here has cast credits during the characters’ first appearances. That said, the 2K remastered image looks fantastic. The clips seen in some of the extras clearly show just how much work has gone into here, and the colors and details are more vivid than ever.
The original Cantonese dub is presented with new subtitles, which are assumed to be more accurate than those of the HKL version, they are certainly more detailed. If you like your kung fu movies to look as silly as they come, the original English dub is also here. I’ll pass, thank you.
A few interview extras, one with Wing Chun Sifu Guy Lai and one with Sammo, Yuen Biao and Frankie Chan are transferred from the HKL record, and both remain valid. In a new video supplement, Frank Djeng meets New York-based Sifu Alex Richter. The first half; a tour of his studio and a few stories of how he got into Wing Chun is hit and miss, but the demonstrations of the style are worth watching.
Two commentaries, one with Djeng and Bobby Samuels, the other with Mike Leeder and Arne Venema, complete the extras. Both are informative and have an engaging dynamic between the commentators, there is of course some overlap, but enough unique discussions in each to make both tracks worth listening to.
The Prodigal Son will be released in a Eureka Video Double Feature Limited Edition Blu-ray set with Warriors Two (a review of which will appear shortly on HeyUGuys) on January 24, 2022.