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The Prodigal Son (1981,Hong Kong)

22/07/2011

Director: Sammo Hung       Starring: Yuen Biao, Lam Ching Ying, Sammo Hung, Frankie Chan

When it comes to Kung Fu movies there quite simply is no school like the old school. This 1981 Golden Harvest production is no exception, staying true to a lot of the conventions established by the mighty Shaw Brothers and the traditions of Chinese semi-historical story telling that can still be felt in even the most modern of Kung Fu cinema. What makes The Prodigal Son stand out from its peers is the conscious decision on behalf of the team resonsible (lead by director Sammo Hung) that it would feature Wing Chun as the principle style of Kung Fu utilised in the film.

The Prodigal Son of the title is none other than Leung Chang (sometimes written as Leung Jan and here performed by Yuen Biao) a name that will mean little to the unitiated but for those interested in the Wing Chun system should be instantly recognisable as the teacher of Chan Wah Shun who in turn was the teacher of the father of modern Wing Chun, Ip Man. Focusing on his early martial arts career the film opens with him labouring under the misapprehension he is the most deadly martial artist in Fut Shan province. The reality of his unbeaten fight record however has less to do with his martial skills and more to do with his rich father’s bribes to local ruffians to throw the fights in order to protect his son from harm. It’s only when he picks a fight with the star of the travelling opera company, an actor and martial artist by the name of Leung Yee Tai (Lam Ching Ying), that he realises his father’s deception. In awe of the beating handed out to him by Leung Yee Tai, Leung Chang joins the opera in order to persuade the reluctant martial arts master to pass on the secrets of his fighting style.

As with all of these Kung Fu films based on real historical characters how accurate the events portrayed in the film are compared to the real life events that occured to the people portrayed is anybody’s guess. Undoubtedly there has been a degree of dramatic licence employed, especially for some of the more spectacular fight scenes but this is no bad thing. It follows the fairly standard arc of a lot of Kung Fu tales. A young, uninitiated would-be warrior seeks training in the martial arts, builds a bond with his master and then is forced to avenge his honour in a final showdown. It’s a well worn formula and with good reason – it’s a damn satisfying one.

Sammo Hung presents it here with a blend of fine quality fight scenes, drama and more than a little slapstick humour which is often reminiscent of Jackie Chan’s earlier films. The fight scenes are particularly good. Leung Chang’s skill visibly improves over the course of the film and Yee Tai’s reluctance to fight conceals a deadly and efficient ability. As the story unfolds the fight scenes become more intense as each battle has more at stake. Early sparring challenges give way to brutal fights to the death as the film draws to its inevitably dramatic conclusion with one of the finest one on one duels in Kung Fu cinema history, made all the more special by the fact that Yuen Biao not only plays the role of Leung Chang but also doubles for much of the performance of his opponent and does so seamlessly. It’s a clever combination of choreography and cinematography and a mighty impressive one.

The obligatory training sequence is also very satisfying, Leung Chang’s quest for teaching being far from straightforward as he has to convince Leung Yee Tai to give up his oath not to teach his Kung Fu to anyone. Once his teaching begins though the film gives a good insight into some of the central concepts and principles at the root of Wing Chun via a mini-montage that is a joy to behold.

This is one of those films that is an absolute must for a Kung Fu fan and that serves as an excellent primer to the genre for those who are yet to be converted to the genre. It stands up as one of the finest examples of martial arts cinema which has withstood the test of time rather impressively and if you have any interest in Wing Chun as a style of martial arts it’s one hundred percent essential viewing.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 26/08/2011 01:58

    Good review of a most enjoyable film. I found Lam’s performance to be amazing too. If you don’t mind, I’m going to use the button above to post this on my Facebook page.

    • 26/08/2011 09:58

      Of course I don’t mind, the more people that hear about this film the better. I first saw this film a long time ago and it has been very influential on me. It’s probably the reason I started practicing Wing Tsjun and between this and an old Shaw Brothers movie called Blood Brothers it cemented my love of old school kung fu.

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