Kung Fu is a film style completely alien to most Westerners. When you ask anyone about subtitled films, they usually point to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as their sole endeavor into this different realm. While a good movie, Ang Lee’s film doesn’t begin to reach the heights that the classics of the genre set forth.
Released in 1981, The Prodigal Son is a bona fide classic of the genre. Possibly the best film that director Sammo Hung ever made, the film details a story about a mislead Martial Arts practitioner who believes he is the greatest fighter in this town.
Leung Jan (played by Jackie Chan contemporary Yuen Biao) lives in the town of Foshan around the mid-19th century. He is heralded as a champion, unaware that his father is actually paying his opponents to lose to him. His opponents know how lousy he is, but take the bribe money and nickname him “The Prodigal Son.”
How can you not be impressed with this?!
Some of Jan’s friends attend an opera one night and are attracted to the leading lady. Attempting to get some time with her, Jan’s friends push too far and are beaten by the opera troupe. They also discover that the leading lady was in fact a man (played wonderfully by Lam Ching-Ying).
To get revenge, Jan shows up at the opera tent the next day to savagely beat the men responsible. There, Jan learns that the man who wrecked his friends is named Leung Yee Tai and that he knows everything about Jan. He explains to Jan how he’s been fooled, but Jan won’t hear it.
After a relatively quick bout (and a hilarious musical number), Jan is beaten and his life is turned upside down. He doesn’t know whom to trust and only wishes to learn actual Kung Fu to better prepare himself for the world.
This sets off an entire series of events that can best be described as high-octane and outlandish. Being that the film is mostly a Kung Fu Comedy, certain scenes contain humor that appeal to Eastern viewers first and foremost. But, since it is a Kung Fu movie, violence is also prevalent.
The film deftly walks the line between being serious and being lighthearted. During scenes where Jan is trying to win over Yee Tai, we often see Yee Tai pulling a straight face to Jan and then turning his back and smirking. One of my favorites has to be where he refuses to take roast pork from Jan, but then snatches the bowl and calls him an idiot.
There’s also a scene towards the middle where Jan has to fill in for one of the opera troupe members and he utters some weird type of gibberish. When he repeats this to Yee Tai, Yee Tai slaps him and says, “Those are unprintable words!” It all fits into how ludicrous the setting of the film is.
The film is peppered with fight scenes in-between all the exposition and they really pack a punch. Sammo Hung is great at displaying the fundamentals of Wing Chun while making everything quick and visceral. Camera angles really show off the impact of the hits and the physicality of the actors sells the action well.
What really sells the film is how mature it gets towards the end. After a thrilling middle scene involving people jumping fire, Jan and Yee Tai escape to the country side to avoid death. They meet up with Yee Tai’s brother, Wong Wah-Bo (played by Sammo Hung) and the film takes a much more comedy laden approach.
The second half begins with Wah-Bo walking towards his calligraphy table with the folk legend Wong Fei-Hung’s theme playing. He yawns and the music immediately slows down and cuts out. He then does some calligraphy for his daughter, bouncing around the room and eventually falling on his face. It’s insane to watch, but all very humorous due to Hung’s expressions. Even while directing, Hung still manages to put on a great performance.
While not much is detailed about the brother’s relationship, Wah-Bo and Yee Tai eventually go at it and insult each other left and right. One scene (improperly translated) has the two brothers fighting over who gets to train Jan. Jan runs back and forth and eventually gives up and runs off.
The best bits have to be the training sequences. Sammo Hung was a true master of his craft and he distills so much useful information about Wing Chung Kung Fu. Jan’s training shows quick cuts of the most effective uses of Wing Chun, from quick and forceful jabs to low footwork and even some light acrobatics.
When Jan trains under Wah-Bo, we are even told how to react to moving opponents. The ruthless side of Kung Fu is shown, too. Instead of simply attacking at your opponent’s core, Wah-Bo instructs how using weaker points (such as eyes and genitals) or even wounds can lead to victory, which is most important.
This all would be pointless without an amazing climax and Sammo Hung really outdoes himself with this film. Jan meets with Ngai after his teacher is murdered and the two have a duel to end all duels. The pacing is lightning fast, the hits look brutal and the blood is so dramatic and over-the-top that it just blends into a glorious scene.
While there is no real closure and the plot is lacking in depth, The Prodigal Son
is a true classic of the Martial Arts genre. When it comes down to it, fight scenes are what makes or breaks a kung fu film and his movie has them in spades. They are also leaps and bounds above what other films in the genre have.
I couldn’t recommend this movie enough, but I will say that the Fox DVD has some awful subtitles. If possible, seek out the Hong Kong release from 2006 or the UK Hong Kong Legends DVD. Both of those are better representations of how amazing his cinematic gem is.