Note: The screen grabs are from the HKL version.
This all time martial arts classic, directed by Sammo Hung, is considered by many as the most authentic kung fu movie ever made. Yuen Biao is a spoiled martial artist-wannabe son whose wealthy father pays others to lost to him during fights. When his father's scheme is revealed to him by a seasoned Peking Opera performer/Wing Chun master (Lam Ching YIng), Yuen vows to learn kung-fu for real. But first he has to persuade Lam to take him as his pupil, then there is Lam's rival colleague (Sammo Hung) and a mysterious, fight seeking challenger to contend with!
The Prodigal Son is a Hong Kong martial arts film which will not have passed most true martial art film fans by. Directed by Sammo Hung back in 1981 as a prequel to his own Warriors Two, you know just from this that it is going to be something good. With the cast list though, my expectations went up higher (back when I first saw this film that is). This was because I have always liked Yuen Biao as he is less bulky muscular than the likes of Jackie Chan, but really looks more the part of a lean and well physically toned martial artist. Not to mention the fact that he can do some incredible fight scenes. This film is no exception.
Plot wise The Prodigal Son is pretty much just a spin on the usual themes of being the best martial artist, honour and revenge. In much more detail though (big spolers ahead, as basically the whole story is told), Biao is a rich man's son, and he is also regarded as the best fighter in his town, and he knows everyone sees him this way. What he does not know, though, is that all his fights are staged, as the people he fights are paid, by his father via his servent, to lose. This becomes clear when an opera group comes to town and his friends cause some trouble and are beat up by the lead of the opera (Lam Ching Ying). Naturally they go get Biao to come teach this person a lesson, but his kung-fu is far inferior, and as Ying won't accept any bribes, Biao loses. Realising that everything he thought isn't real, he seeks to be taught by Ying - but is refused. Persistence is one of his stronger points, however, and to aid him in his quest his father buys him the opera group so that he can travel with them, but still YIng refuses to teach him any Kung-Fu.
Enter now Frankie Chan. During one stop of the opera group, a fight breaks out and Ying is forced to fight back, making his kung-fu prowess painfully clear. This is seen by Chan, who is a royal son, out to challenge and defeat all kung-fu masters and prove himself the best. Seeking a fight with Ying, Chan invites the entire opera group to dinner, where he issues his challenge which is refused by Ying, as he has nothing to prove, but needless to say a fight proceeds. Alas Ying is asthmatic, and has a outbreak mid-fight. Not wanting to take advantage of this Chan stops fighting, but with the full intention of continuing once Ying is better.
Meanwhile Chan's bodyguards have other orders. While they are there to look after Chan, they also have orders from his father that he is not to get hurt, and they are to eliminate anyone who looks as though they could defeat Chan. This they suspect of Ying, and that night they plan to carry out his murder. Not wanting any witnesses the entire opera group is murdered, but Ying is saved by Biao, and they flee to Ying's home, where his brother (Sammo Hung) also lives. It is here where Ying is finally persuaded into training Biao in kung-fu, and Hung too gets involved in the teaching.
I may have just about told the entire story, but the plot is holds no surprises, and is far from the main focus of the film. The main attraction has got to be the fight scenes. Simply put, they are superb. There is no wire-fu here. The characters cannot jump 40 feet in the air or fly. Everything they do is physically possible to do (by them anyway, certainly not by me!), which makes the fight all the more astonishing. To add to the realism, during the fights you could actually see the injuries and bruises forming on the characters after they had been hit. There was none of the getting beat around the head repeatedly, then only a trickle of blood comes from the nose. Here there are big purple bruises and large amounts of swelling, see Chan's head after the headbutt in the final fight... the swelling grows and looks very sore. Granted the make up effects aren't that great, and the swollen lump may look a quite fake at times, given the film's age and the ability to use your own imagination, the fact that the swelling is there is enough for me.
The fights themselves were intended to accurately portray Wing Chun Kung Fu, as before making the film Sammo Hung et al. were aware that there were no films out there which give a good representation of the Wing Chun style. This was mainly due to Wing Chun not really being that photogenic for films. It didn't have the fancy 'wow' sort of factor to it which other styles of Kung Fu did have. If a martial arts film was going to sell, the fights had to look good. While a few liberties may have been taken in the protrayal of Wing Chun, Hung et al. still managed to show the true essence of Wing Chun and make it look very, very good. Wing Chun masters were on set for consultation to ensure that the fights and philosophies were as true as possible. It isn't until Biao is actually being taught Wing Chun by Ying that the foundations for the style are explicitly told, but the verbal explanations are all followed by training scenes putting what was said into practice, allowing you to see the true art in practice.
The choreography in the fight scenes is complex to basically the right level. They aren't too complex that things look confused, rushed or badly executed, but they aren't too simple that they become boring. Elbows, hands, heads, feet and shoulders are all used as effective weapons, and if the interview in the extras are anything to go by, and this you can clearly see yourself in the film, those weapons were used quite heavily even though it was just a film. During the fights contact is being made and, from what Frankie Chan says, it was very painfull to film those fights. Their pain is our reward though, as The Prodigal Son is simply one of the best period martial arts films I've seen, and from what I gather one of the most authentic Wing Chun films put to film.
I'm not going to comment much at all on the acting, as it isn't really important. To put it bluntly, everyone gets their job done. Biao's servant is certainly annoying, but I got used to him after a while. That's it for comments on the acting.
The only slightly negative comments which I will put towards The Prodigal Son is that it is slightly uneven in tone, but then that is a very common characteristic of a lot of Hong Kong cinema. There are some very light hearted scenes which are there purely for comedy purposes, like Sammo's kung fu calligraphy scene. I personally love that scene on its own, as seeing him jump and tumble around so effortlessly and with such agility is amazing in itself. Other scenes are incredibly bleak and violent though, and at complete contrast to the comedy, like the opera troup massacre. For some this imbalance in tone may be a slight put off as far as overall enjoyment is concerned, but those who are seasoned Hong Kong cinema viewers, you'll probably be able to easily take it in your stride as you should be so used to it by now!
The pain, time, research and effort that went in to making this film certainly paid off. Over 20 years since the film was made, and it is still heralded as one of the best traditional martial arts films ever made. I agree with that view, and emplore you to buy yourself a copy of The Prodigal Son if you don't own one already.
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