The Prodigal Son Review
The Prodigal Son is highly regarded as one of the greatest traditional martial arts films of all time amongst both fans and critics alike but the question remains, just how will the new found audiences of Hong Kong cinema, those who have been reared on a healthy diet of Jet Li and Jackie Chan style movies, take to this classic? Unlike the other recent high profile Hong Kong Legends release, Project A, I am not convinced that The Prodigal Son will appeal in quite the same way though much the same can be said of all films placed in the 'traditional martial arts' genre. But then few will have come to the attention of the new fan base with as much praise and hype than The Prodigal Son. With those thoughts in mind let us take a look at this 1982 classic and discover just why it deserves such a title.
Much like the Tsui Hark epic Once Upon A Time in China this Sammo Hung directed movie is loosely based around the true story of a martial arts legend. But whereas the former title saw Jet Li take on the role of Wong Fei-hung, master of the Hung Gar style, The Prodigal Son sees fan favourite Yuen Biao take to the screen as Leung Jan, a legend of the Wing Chun style and the The Prodigal Son of the title. He is referred to as such for he is the son of a wealthy family that goes out on his own and does good (in this case becomes a martial arts master) in the same vein as the bible story the film takes its title from.
The story begins with Leung Jan believing he is the greatest fighter of his hometown, but unfortunately for him the truth will soon be revealed that his over-protective parents have been bribing his opponents so as to protect him from harm. Leung Jan discovers this painful truth when he confronts an opera player, Leung Yee Tai (portrayed by Lam Ching-ying), who had previously proven his skills to a friend of Jan's. Not succumbing to any bribes Yee Tai soon shows Jan how weak his martial arts skills are which in turn leads Jan to join the opera group so he can follow Yee Tai in the hope of learning from a true master.
As the story unfolds we are introduced to Ngai, a martial arts master who is travelling all over China in search of a challenge, and when he finds Leung Yee Tai he persists in requesting a duel. Left with no choice Leung Yee Tai agrees but due to illness is unable to continue, but as it turns out Ngai is linked to the royals and his servants are under similar orders to what Leung Jan's servants were, except they have the authorisation to take things much further. Leung Yee Tai and Leung Jan manage to escape tragedy and end up at the abode of Wong Wa Po, the kung-fu brother of Leung Yee Tai who is portrayed magnificently by Sammo Hung. Truly a story of two halves The Prodigal Son now becomes one of Leung Jan learning the Wing Chun style from both Leung Yee Tai and Wong Wa Po in a series of training sequences that will eventually lead to the finale no martial arts movie can do without.
The somewhat traditional story of a young master that is disgraced and then goes on to become a true master of any given style is thankfully told in such a way that The Prodigal Son still feels fresh even to this day. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why that is but it certainly has something to do with the sheer quality of talent onboard and the always fine direction of Sammo Hung who garners great performances from all of his major players. These include of course Yuen Biao who in one of his first leading roles shows that he is every bit the leading man as he delivers in every major department, be it comedic, dramatic or physical acting and in each he is an utter joy to watch. As Leung Yee Tai, an opera player that for a large part of the movie is seen in full makeup for a female role, is the now sadly departed Lam Ching-ying, a man better known for his role in the Mr Vampire films though deserving of much praise for a fine performance here. Not only does he excel when performing in the opera scenes (to be expected considering his training in this area) and the fight sequences (more on these in a minute) but his comedic interplay with onscreen kung-fu brother Wong Wa Po (Sammo Hung) is a delight and surely guaranteed to bring a smile to even the most ardent protestors of broad Hong Kong comedy. Of course theses scenes would not work half as well if it were not for the great Sammo Hung who not only delivers as a director but also puts in a classic performance as the aforementioned Wong Wa Po.
The final key cast member is Frankie Chan who as Ngai, delivers a 'cool' performance of a character who is not exactly evil, but is the cause of all the problems Leung Jan and Leung Yee Tai must overcome. Backing up the main cast is a range of quality players such as James Tien (a challenger of Frankie Chan's character), Dick Wei (as one of Ngai's bodyguards, a role that allows him to show off a few moves) and even Lee Hoi San who makes a brief appearance as one of Leung Jan's teachers early in the film.
Seeing how The Prodigal Son is a traditional martial arts classic I am a little surprised at just how long it has taken me to fully praise the sublime choreography that Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Lam Ching-ying co-developed with the help of martial arts consultant Sifu Guy Lai. The Prodigal Son was one of the first martial arts movie to use the Wing Chun style, so as you might expect it immediately offers something fresh for you to enjoy but as always it comes down to the beautifully choreographed sequences that are performed in a graceful manner by the films key players that really makes The Prodigal Son a classic of the genre. From the incidental fight sequences with Lam Ching-ying fending off troublemakers at the Opera House to the stunning showdown between Ching-ying and Frankie Chan at the films mid-way point you will already have been treated to some fine action. But then Sammo adds an interesting Calligraphy martial arts demonstration (surely inspired by his previous work on Magnificent Butcher), some wonderfully developed training sequences that genuinely push the story forward and of course the finale whose only disappointment is that it is too short lived.
In fact, that last point is the only real fault I can find with The Prodigal Son. The style of fighting chosen by Sammo and his team is firmly that of the traditional martial arts genre with its lengthy and complicated exchanges of blows yet this concept has for The Prodigal Son been merged with the short bouts that would be later seen in Sammo's mid eighties output. Although change is not always a bad thing the problem I have with these short fights is that not only am I expecting more due to what has gone before, but quite frankly I want more because the quality of the action sequences is that good! Still we can't have everything...
This Hong Kong Legends DVD is Region 2 and 4 encoded. You can read a review of the Region 0 Universe release from Simon Wyndham here.
The Prodigal Son is presented here in its original 2.35:1 Widescreen Aspect Ratio with Anamorphic Enhancement and for the most part is another great release from the team at Hong Kong Legends. The only real problems present are all print related and while HKL have done another fine restoration job there are just some faults that are too hard to fix. Throughout the films running time you may or may not notice three problems that pop up from time to time. The first of these are faint horizontal lines on the print that are present on a number of occasions, around the 13-minute mark we can see two for roughly 10-minutes, then again there is a more prominent example of this at the 61-minute mark that also lasts for around 10-minutes, and finally again at the 91-minute mark we can see a few minor lines present for a few minutes. We are however talking about thin lines no more than a few centimetres in length and really not at all detrimental to your viewing pleasure, but in the search for perfection they should be pointed out. The next print-related problem is one of blurriness to the top fifth of the image that occurs briefly on around four separate occasions in the second half of the film. Again, this is only a minor cause for concern, much like the final problem which some will probably not even notice at all, and that is one of slight skips in the print (and no, this is not the layer change) that occur twice at the 18:30 and 85:57 minute points.
Other than these faults (which are not that detrimental to your enjoyment of the film) the print has been restored to the typical HKL standards which means you will see no other signs of dirt or lines on the print that is also completely free of grain. This allows for the detail to shine through with the sequences at the opera looking particularly impressive. These same sequences also showcase the excellent rendering of colours and black levels though both detail levels and colour rendition can be muted slightly with the occasional soft looking scene. Finally the encoding has been handled well with no signs of compression artefacts while for the first time ever on a Hong Kong Legends release I am extremely happy to report that I did not even spot the layer change!
As they do on the occasional title Hong Kong Legends have opted against the traditional DD5.1 remix and have instead included the original Cantonese Language track in DD2.0 Stereo. With no signs of hiss or audio dropouts this presentation is adequate if uninspired as there is little in the way of stereo separation and the bold music can occasionally sound a little harsh. Otherwise everything is fine with clear dialogue making the experience easy on the ears. The alternative English Dub is also present in DD2.0 Stereo and again is a similar story in terms of quality, sadly the same cannot be said for the dub, which is a truly dire experience and one that I am saddened to have been put through.
The optional English subtitles are well presented using an easy to read white font and as we have come to expect there are no signs of spelling or grammatical errors. The only slight issue I had was how Yuen Biao's character is known as 'Leung Chang' on the subtitle track, 'Leung Jaan' on the rear cover and finally as 'Leung Jan' (which I believe is the correct name) in The Art of Wing Chun extra feature! Take your pick as to which one you believe to be the most accurate.
The cover art for this Hong Kong Legends DVD includes a quote from regular audio commentator Bey Logan where he claims The Prodigal Son is "The best traditional martial arts movie ever made". With a statement like that you would expect Bey to be extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic for this movie (like he is for most HKL releases) and of course he does not disappoint. Throughout the film we learn about the key players involved both in front of and behind the camera as well as enjoying Bey's general comments on the film itself. Where things get really interesting though is in the brief history lesson we are given on the Wing Chun style that Bey fits in around various stories he has picked up over the years (and from his own brief time spent on the set of The Prodigal Son) while he also explains a Wong Jing gag that goes by unnoticed to non-Cantonese speakers (despite what looks to be accurate subtitling). This is another great commentary track that both informs and entertains and most importantly gives the film a new lease of life to those who thought they knew it inside and out.
The Interview Gallery includes two interview sessions that are both presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with player generated English subtitles when required. The first session titled The Heroic Trio: an interview with Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao & Frankie Chan runs for 27-minutes and contains separate interviews with each actor edited together alongside various film clips. Sammo covers areas such as the reasons he chose the Wing Chun style and the story behind the film as well as revealing some great stories from the set. Biao discusses his role in the film and the action while Frankie Chan, who is featured the least, offers his own thoughts on various aspects of the filming. As we have come to expect from HKL interview features this is an informative and well presented watch but the fact that the footage found here is all new makes it that much more interesting.
The next interview session is titled An interview with Sifu Guy Lai with Wing Chun demonstrations by Sifu Austin Goh and runs for just under 28-minutes. In this interview Grandmaster of the Wing Chun style and martial arts consultant on The Prodigal Son, Sifu Guy Lai, covers several topics. These include an outline of the Wing Chun style (with demonstrations of the Kata's), his thoughts on Bruce Lee and the Jeet Kune Do style, and finally his impressions of Sammo Hung and the time he spent on The Prodigal Son including much discussion on the adaptation of the Wing Chun style for the screen. Interspersed throughout this interview are demonstrations of Wing Chun by Sifu Austin Goh. This is an extremely good interview thanks to Sifu Guy Lai who is not only open in his discussion but has much to say on the subjects covered and is enthusiastic about his art.
Also present on this disc are two text-based features. The Tribute to Lam Ching-ying is a 21 page feature that chronicles the life of one of Hong Kong's greatest and makes for an interesting read though you may have already taken it in on the Mr Vampire DVD. The Art of Wing Chun is a new 9 page featurette created for this HKL release that as the title suggests covers the art of Wing Chun, the primary martial art style seen in The Prodigal Son. Taking us through the principles, the history and finally the training methods of Wing Chun this is an interesting read though most of it has already been covered in both the audio commentary and the interview section of the disc.
Last but not least is a Trailer Gallery that includes the UK Promotional Trailer and the original Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (both presented in 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen) that is worth watching just for the voice over that ends with "If you don't believe me, see it for yourself!".
The first time I saw The Prodigal Son I had the misfortune to view it in English dub form and my initial impressions were that it was good, but nothing special. Fortunately Hong Kong Legends have released this fine DVD and given me the opportunity to enjoy The Prodigal Son in its original language (yet again reaffirming my general hatred towards dubs!) and I can now safely say it is a classic of the genre, and one that any fan should own, with this HKL DVD coming highly recommended for that purpose.