Dir: Sammo Hung Kam Bo
What’s It All About?
Leung Jaan (Yuen Biao) is the best fighter in his town, but only because his Father pays other fighters to lose to him. When he gets into a fight with opera star Leung Yee-tai (Lam Ching Ying) he discovers the truth, and begins following the troupe, hoping that Yee-tai will teach him.
When Yee-tai is murdered by a fellow master (Frankie Chan) Leung Jaan sets out for revenge.
Why Haven’t You Seen It?
Because you haven’t yet discovered classic kung-fu movies (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doesn’t count).
Why Should You See It?
Because The Prodigal Son is, quite simply, the best martial arts movie ever made. With most kung-fu movies the fighting is not just central, it’s the only thing worth talking about, not so in The Prodigal Son, in which the story and performances are just as engaging as the kicking and punching.
Though Yuen Biao is the leading player it is the late Lam Ching Ying who is the star of this film. As gay opera star Leung Yee-tai he gives a surprisingly layered performance. There’s a gravitas about him that makes Leung Jaan’s respect for Yee-tai play, despite the punishment the master heaps on his student. Lam also deftly plays the role’s comedic aspects, but never lets his portrayal slip too far into silliness or stereotype.
The other performances, from Sammo’s opera school ‘brother’ Yuen Biao and a comedic showcase for the director himself, are also very good, even if they lack just a little of that screen grabbing charisma that Lam brings to his role.
While Jackie Chan dealt in comedic action Sammo Hung’s choreography is more impactful, more violent, but no less beautifully choreographed for it. He had already made the close quarters wing chun style highly cinematic with the earlier Warriors Two, but The Prodigal Son takes the action even further, without the fights becoming inauthentic. Martial arts sequences in film are now wire controlled, allowing anyone to do it, but there is little artifice here, just amazing athletes working at the height of their powers.
The standout moment, a blistering close encounter between Lam and Frankie Chan, is intricate and hard hitting (both physically and dramatically) in equal measure, and may well be the best hand-to-hand fight ever put on film. The Prodigal Son is a smart, involving, movie, with action sequences Bruce Lee would be jealous of, if you only ever see one martial arts film it should be this.
How Can You See It?
The UK DVD release by Hong Kong Legends is still the best available. It boasts remastered picture and subtitles (as well as, sadly, an English dub) and Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan provides a typically exhaustive and interesting commentary track.