Peking Opera began to lose popularity after the Chinese Communist Revolution and many performers began to migrate into the Hong Kong film industry as actors, extras, stunt men, action choreographers and directors. Up to that point, the action in martial arts films was based on showcasing the fighting skills of the stars and the use of special effects, such as “wire fu” stunts and creative camera work. The addition of the highly trained Peking Opera performers allowed directors to capture more raw action in the form of acrobatic flips and falls in a single camera shot.
|Sammo Hung as an extra in Enter the Dragon|
Sammo Hung, recognizable by his girth and prominent scar on his face, got his start as an extra (Bruce Lee beats on him in the opening of 1973's Enter The Dragon until he back flips away), before going on to become a lead actor, director and even have an American television series (Martial Law, CBS, 1998-2000). Even though his size was a foil for comedic effect Hung's performances were agile and graceful. As a director and producer, he made several martial arts comedies. Among his best known films was Mr. Vampire (1985, produced by Hung and directed by Ricky Lau), part of the kung fu horror comedy jiangshi genre, starred Lam Ching-ying and featured Yuen Biao. Hung also directed and starred in 1988's Dragons Forever, the last film he made with his other two dragon-brothers, Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao.
|The Three Brothers in Dragons Forever|
Hung comes back to this theme of confusion between players and their characters in intriguing ways when a Peking Opera troupe comes to Chang's hometown to perform The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The character of Guan Yu (called General Kwan in the subtitles) is the epitome of piety, courage, and loyalty, and the polar opposite of the foul mouthed, self serving, woman chasing actor that plays him on stage. It is his with dalliances with married women that creates the conflicts that move The Prodigal Son into its darker second half.
Chang is humiliatingly defeated when he tries to come to thee aid of a friend whose attentions were rebuffed by the female lead. Not only is the actress revealed to be a man, Leung Lee-tai, played by veteran actor Lam Ching-ying he reveals the ruse Chang's parents have been paying people to lose. Older than his costars, Ching-ying was trained at the Chun Chau Drama Society where his slight build and soft voice made him the popular choice for playing Peking Opera's female roles.
|Lam Ching-ying beguiles an unsuspecting suitor|
|Yuen Biao and Lam Ching-ying ham it up for the audience|
The Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son deals with the themes of wasteful spending, unconditional love and redemption. Leung Chang and Lord Ngai Fai are the prodigal sons of the film. Unbeknownst to both, their families use their fortunes to give their sons what they want most, their reputations as wing chun masters. Where Chang’s family repented their duplicity and helped Chang, Lord Fai’s family, fearing that he would lose, order the death of Lee-tai and his entire troop to prevent the combat.
|Despite Sammo Hung's gravity defying skills |
fail to elevate the second half of the movie