Written by Sammo Hung and Wong Bing Yiu
Directed by Sammo Hung
Starring Yuen Biao, Lam Ching-ying, Sammo Hung, and Frankie Chan
Released by: Fortune Star/20th Century Fox
My Advice: Fu fans need to own it. All others rent.
Leung Chang (Biao) is the self-proclaimed King of Kung Fu in his native village, having never lost a bout in hundreds of fights. What Leung doesn’t know, however, is that his rich and influential father has insured his unbeatability by simply having one of his lackeys bribe any potential opponents into throwing the fight. The old man means well, as he simply doesn’t want his son getting hurt, but the arrogance that this undefeated record has instilled in Leung is the source of more of his fights starting than anything else.
[ad#longpost]All that changes when a troupe of opera performers roll into town. The best fighter in said troupe, Yee Tai (Ching-ying), exposes this little charade when Leung challenges him to a battle. Leung, furious at his father for having bribed his opponents, immediately pledges himself as the humble servant and hopeful pupil of Yee Tai, despite Tai’s objections and insistence that he will never take Leung on as a student. The opera continues on its merry way, with Leung playing understudy to Yee Tai, until they cross paths with Lord Ngai (Frankie Chan), himself a skilled practitioner, who wants to battle Yee Tai to see who has the best kung fu.
Ngai’s father, himself an overprotective man, hires a squad of assassins (ninja!) to wipe out the opera troupe in their sleep. Unfortunately, both Leung Chang and Yee Tai survive, and the story turns rapidly to vengeance, as Yee Tai relents and trains Leung Chang so that the two of them might avenge their slaughtered comrades.
The Prodigal Son is a fairly familiar storyline for anybody that’s seen even a handful of kung fu flicks. The vengeance story is a staple of the genre, and there aren’t really many details that differentiate this version from dozens of others. In fact, the pacing of this movie is slow by any standard, and incredibly slow by the standards of the genre. There are some solid comedy relief moments, including most notably Sammo Hung’s appearance as Yee Tai’s brother late in the film, but otherwise, this is pretty stock fare from a storytelling standpoint. Where the movie stands out as a masterpiece of the form is in that most important facet of Hong Kong cinema, the fight choreography. Hung teams up with his two stars to put the action together, and the result is intricate, fast-paced, and sprinkled liberally throughout the entire film.
The movie looks as good here as it likely ever has, thanks to Fortune Star’s digital remastering of the video and audio. The English dub is decent, as well, though it still suffers from the same melodrama and overacting so common in the kung fu imports of the era. It is, in fairness, better in this regard than many movies of its time, but the conventions of kung fu dubbing were pretty egregious ’til the late 80s. The subtitles are a bit more problematic, and are confusing enough in places that the dub is vastly preferrable.
Unfortunately, we get nada in terms of special features except a couple of trailers. This is particularly irritating given the great treatment this gets in Region 2, where the disc is loaded with commentary, interviews, and bios on major players. I hope Fortune Star continues to crank out these kung fu classics on DVD, but it would be nice if they’d elevate their game to match the pre-existing releases of the films from other regions. This is what really keeps the DVD from being a must-buy for even passing fans of action films. As it is, most can get by with a rental, though hardcore kung fu junkies will want to add this classic to their collection.