The Prodigal Son/Review
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
The Prodigal Son is a critical movie in the career of both Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. There is a lot in it that is purely inspired by what came before it, including the mandatory training montages, a staple without which traditional Kung Fu movies can't seem to be complete. But solely based on entertainment value, this manages to tower above many martial arts movies out there.
What also sets it apart is its theme, which somehow makes it universal and relevant even today. It talks about the lengths overprotective parents go to protect themselves from their own flaws, causing them to stop developing into fully functional adults, which is often not what the parents might have intended.
The movie starts with Leung Chang (Yuen Biao) being challenged by a man to a duel. The reaction of the crowd at the restaurant where it happens makes it look like it is an unusual occurrence. After dispatching the guy with ease, we soon realize that his father has been manipulating and fixing the fights to make Yuen believe he has always won on his own.
The entire village plays along with the charade as his father is an influential figure in the community. These staged one-sided fights also cause Leung to develop a massive ego as he foolishly starts to believe in his own amazing prowess. All this comes to an abrupt end when he comes to close quarters with a real fighter Leung Yee-Tai (played by a never-better Lam Ching-Ying), who refuses to back down. Chang manages to get resoundingly trashed and decides to be Yee-Tai's apprentice after eating humble pie.
In the beginning, Yee-Tai treats Chang more like an irritable fly who keeps coming back but he eventually becomes accustomed to his annoying presence. It continues even when Chang gets him into a lot more trouble than he wants. As Yee-Tai is part of a theatre group and is a traveling artist, they come across another prodigal son, Ngai Fei (Frankie Chan), who challenges Yee to a fight when they travel to another town. Unlike Chang's father, Ngai's dad is more ruthless in his dealings, having the theater where Yee-Tai is performing destroyed, and the members of his troupe killed while Yee and Chang barely escape to recuperate and go into hiding at Yee's friend Wong's (Sammo Hung) farm.
Here, Chang gets to train with both his masters as while he manages to convince or trick Wong into teaching him a more freestyle-based fighting style while Yee-Tai continues to teach him traditional Wing Chun. The rest of the movie is about whether Chang and Yee are able to go back and get their revenge.
The most noteworthy part of the movie is the cast who are all aces in the film. Yuen Biao, forever in the shadows of his illustrious friends Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung is often considered the most serious among the three. The straight arrow stuck in the crossfire usually caused by Chan and Hung. Still, he delivers a brilliant comedic performance here. He is at his most self-deprecating best as he is mainly playing the clown who everyone mocks and jeers behind his back. His transformation from eating humble pie at his early defeat, to his concern and loyalty for his master and his chemistry with Lam Ching-Ying and his long-time friend Hung, all this makes it stand tall among martial arts comedic performances.
Lam Ching-Ying and Sammo Hung brilliantly play off each other as the masters of Chang. Lam Ching, forever crippled and stereotyped by his vampire movies, is in full swing here as Yee-Tai. Though not an entirely comedic performance, he gracefully lets Biao and Hung do all the comedic heavy lifting while retaining a certain impishness as the Kung Fu expert who plays female characters in theatre. Some of the movies' best laughs also come when a lot of men mistakenly believe him to be female and try to hit on him. His fights with the two titular prodigal sons also count among the highlights.
It is refreshing to see Frankie Chan as an honorable villain, which is usually not the case in these movies where the villain would want to win by hook or crook. The concern he shows when Yee-Tai gets a fit of asthma during their fight is almost heartwarming and shocking at the same time. As is his obliviousness at the cruelty shown by his henchmen, who are tasked with destroying whoever becomes a threat to his delusional facade.
The final fight between Frankie and Yuen takes a new meaning as the battle between the two prodigal sons. Yes, Yuen Biao is the titular protagonist, but Frankie Chan's sincerity, both performance-wise and as a character, makes it hard not to at least partially root for him for being such a nice guy.
There is always this giant adorable quality that Sammo Hung has where you want to cuddle this huge likable teddy bear. The best example is Heroes on Wheels, where he plays the sweet, friendly, mentally challenged brother of Jackie Chan. It is on full display here where he plays the Kung Fu master who is also a lovable rascal who is not beneath using his daughter to hustle strangers.
Ultimately, The Prodigal Son is about the blind love that parents have for their children, sometimes even to the point of being detrimental to their well-being. When participation medals are not enough, and the need to protect the children from their faults causes them to be clueless about their abilities.
If there is any doubt about why The Prodigal Son won several accolades for its action choreography, watch the movie to dispel your doubts. It is a movie that hands down deserves its place in any best martial arts movie list. A movie which is as good as its reputation suggests. Go for it.