Two kinds of martial arts films are “in” these days. The high flying sword play wuxia and the gritty crude Shaw Brothers-esque kind. “Prodigal Son” is neither. That’s because it’s from Golden Harvest Studios, the greatest film studio of Hong Kong. A martial arts movie from Golden Harvest studios means little or no high flying acrobatics but pure, fantastic martial arts action. With a little comedy and history thrown in for good measure. They made a fortune going against the grain, taking risks and ensuring quality. Something Shaw Brothers hadn’t done in a long time. They made many classics but “Prodigal Son” really is something special.
An arrogant young brawler named Leung Jaan loves to fight and prides himself on his martial arts skills. Little does he know, his rich father is paying people to lose so his only son won’t get hurt. But things take a turn for the worse when a real kung fu master challenges him and exposes his secret. Before long he is thrust into the crazy and dangerous world of the martial arts.
This is the second movie Sammo directed about Leung Jaan, the real life master of Wing Chun Kung Fu. The first, “Warriors Two” shows Master Leung as an older man whereas Prodigal Son deals with his days as a spoiled youth looking to be a great martial arts fighter. Wing Chun had never really been used as the basis of a Kung Fu film before because it is a fighting style that relies on inner strength, keeps it’s feet firmly on the ground and uses lots of close quarter combat movements which many film makers, even the risk takers at Golden Harvest, believed would simply not work on the cinema screen. In short, it wasn’t fancy enough. But Sammo knew different and made two movies that manage to show everybody that real and visceral Kung Fu ability can be just as exciting and graceful as any other kind of screen fighting. Even though “Warriors Two” does break new ground in terms of action with some excellent choreography, “Prodigal Son” is simply better in every way, not only as a martial arts flick but as an engaging and entertaining film too.
Leung Jaan is played by Yeun Biao which, considering his fame for high flying acrobatics, was a pretty bold casting decision. But as he and Sammo trained together for years in Master Yu Jin Yeun’s opera academy, the director knew exactly what his leading man was capable of and what kind of endurance he could put up with. Yet Yeun Biao’s acting is not out shined by his martial arts skill and does a wonderful job at playing the pampered brat gaining discipline and respect. Yet with all of Yeun Biao’s fighting and acting ability and all of Sammo’s skill as director and choreographer (and actor in a hilarious extended cameo) this film really belongs to the late, great Lam Ching Ying as Leung Jaan’s master Lung Yee Tai. A favorite of many fans of Hong Kong action cinema, particularly for this performance alone, Lam Ching Ying is a marvel to watch. A student of Madame Fong Fak Fa’s opera academy, Lam played many female roles on stage in the Cantonese opera because of his slender build and elegant acrobatic skill. This made him the perfect choice to play a Wing Chun master. Especially one who, in this film, is a member of a traveling opera troupe and plays the leading female roles in their performances. Yet he is no softie when it’s time to fight and shows incredible technique whenever challenged. Like Yeun Biao, Lam Ching Ying not only shows off his dazzling style of action here but he also gives us a great show by playing the reserved and humble martial arts master with the occasional flash of comedy that really livens up the character and gives it more than one dimension. I cannot say enough good things about Lam’s performance. He is a great example of why Hong Kong action movies will always be better than American ones. Hong Kong has martial arts ACTORS not martial arts experts trying to act on film. Lam Ching Ying was one of Hong Kong’s finest actors and this film really shows it.
Do yourself a favor and check out this movie. If you like Kung Fu cinema then it is essential viewing but if you don’t then I would insist on giving this film a look. Granted some humour won’t translate to Western viewers. Also some of the historical references may require a quick Google. But if you approach “Prodigal Son” and others like it with an open mind and are willing to accept the cultural differences between Hong Kong and other foreign films, then you will experience something new, different and exciting. A new world of fantastic and unique cinema will be opened up for you, and “Prodigal Son” is a great place to start.