Review: The Prodigal Son (1982)

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Sammo Hung’s been in the film industry a long time and has produced, directed or acted in a huge number of films, working with virtually every major martial arts actor in the business: his younger brothers-in-Opera Jackie Chan (Project A, Wheels on Meals and more) and Yuen Biao, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Wu Jing, Lau Kar Leung, Lau Kar Wing… the list goes on. The Prodigal Son is lauded by many as one of his best, particularly in its depiction of Wing Chun, a kung fu discipline that Sammo has treated on film several times.

The story of this film concerns Leung Chang (Yuen Biao), the only son of a wealthy family in the town of Fut Shan. He’s acquired the nickname “The Street Brawler” for his hundreds of fights, undefeated in every one, and saunters around the landscape arrogantly dispensing justice. All well and good, except that Chang isn’t quite the master he seems to be. Worried that their lad might be hurt, his parents have his servant pay off his opponents, so that Chang walks out of every brawl victorious and unharmed. Even his kung fu instructors pretend to lose, loudly proclaiming their unwillingness to spar with the young master.

Everything is fine in the small town of Fut Shan until Leung Chang meets a Cantonese Opera player named Leung Yee-tai. Yee-tai’s not interested in money to lose gracefully, and he derisively shows Chang what real kung fu is, dispensing the first beating the young man’s ever had. Chang resolves to become Yee-tai’s student, whatever it takes, and learn some real martial arts. He joins the opera troupe (by buying it!) and follows Yee-tai around, desperately trying to convince him to take him on as a student.

Later, we meet Ngai Fai (Frankie Chan), a talented and vicious martial artist who travels the countryside looking for masters to fight, disabling or killing many of them. We’re also introduced to Leung Yee-tai’s brother (he studed under the same master), Wong Wa-po (Sammo Hung), who’s trying rather comically to learn scholarly ways. He pokes fun at Leung Chang and trades insults with Yee-tai, but there’s some valuable lessons for both under all the comedy and argument.

The Prodigal Son is a fun mix of comedy, period drama and solid martial arts. This is the best role I’ve seen Lam Ching Ying play, and his fight sequences are excellent, and probably of particular interest to Wing Chun aficionados. He’s slightly disconcerting with no eyebrows (he does play women in the opera, after all!) but has a commanding presence in the film. Sammo’s acrobatic tomfoolery is great to watch and goes some way to diffusing a rather dark turning in the middle of the film, and Yuen Biao holds things together as the slightly confused student, similar to his character in Dreadnaught. Frankie Chan presents a less black and white take on the villain in this piece, too — he conveys the impression that although he fights for the sake of fighting and is arrogant and vicious, he has a sense of duty and honour and will only fight those that are his match.

This film is a solid addition to Hong Kong Legends’ collection of Australian DVD releases, and one that fans of Sammo Hung or Yuen Biao will definitely want to watch.

9 of Sammo's elaborately made-up Wing Chun forms out of 10.
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