Monday, March 31, 2014

Insomniac Theater Presents: The Prodigal Son (Sammo Hung, 1981)

In the 1970s, martial arts films from Hong Kong began to flood grindhouse theaters and late night television slots in America, creating a “Kung Fu Craze” that captivated action film fans. Martial arts director/star Sammo Hung, actors Lam Ching-ying and Yuen Biao made several standout films together together that not only fed the craze but also elevated the quality of film-making of the genre.  In the 1990s, my daughter and I used to watch bootleg VHS copies of these movies together.  One of her favorites was 1979’s The Prodigal Son, which was both a kung fu comedy with breathtaking action scenes and fight choreography and a warm tribute to the Peking Opera origins of the stars.

 Peking Opera (also known as Bejing Opera or Jīngjù) was a form of Chinese performance popular from the 18th to 20th centuries that used elaborate costumes, acting, singing, dancing and highly skilled acrobatics. The aspiring stars left home at a young age to begin the demanding training required for life in the theater. Jackie Chan wrote about this life at The China Drama and Opera Academy in his biography I Am Jackie Chan (1998), giving many details about the long days filled with grueling training and frequent beatings. It was there that he meet Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, and together they would become known as the Three Dragons.

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
Broken down to its smallest parts, most martial arts movies are a mélange of despicable acts, revenge, and fighting.  The stories unfold and the conflicts are resolved based entirely on hand to hand combat ability, or, put simply, who has the better kung fu?  The Prodigal Son starts out by introducing Leung Chang, played by Yuen Biao, as a world class “street brawler” known for his impressive skills. When the action starts, Hung plays several kung fu movie tropes such as the villain's basso-profundo laughter and randomly executed fight staples such as the second story stunt fall out of order, revealing that Chang's fame is  wholly in his imagination and he is merely the spoiled child of wealthy parents who pay his opponents to lose to him. He is completely unaware they are play acting.

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
Humbled by his defeat, Chang has his parents buy the troupe so that he can study with Lee-tai. This creates an excellent opportunity for the two former Peking Opera performers to show off their singing and dancing skills in a couple musical fights that are truly wonderful to watch.
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
The Prodigal Son is a funny movie especially the first half where the slapstick pratfalls and Howard Hawks style rapid fire repartee provide plenty of fodder for laughter.  The second half is almost unbearably grim, like a second, old school grudge-match style martial arts movie has been unsuccessfully grafted onto the first. Director Sammo Hung is in unable to escape the conventions he lampooned at the beginning and the movie stumbles into the final showdown.

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