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Prodigal Son (1983)

Fox // R // May 25, 2004
List Price: $9.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted July 9, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Prodigal Son (1982) stands as one of the finer moments in the declining days of the old school kung fu film and a fine example of actor/director Sammo Hung and lead Yuen Biao's best collaborations, which includes films like Dreadnaught and Dragons Forever.

Leung Chang (Yuen Biao: Once Upon a Time in China, Righting Wrongs, Peacok King) is the spoiled son of a rich nobleman. Chang has been catered to by his overprotective father, who hired faux martial instructors to teach his son and has bought out the entire town, where Chang engages in fights with guys who always take a dive for some cash. Thus, Chang has grown into thinking that he is a skilled martial artist. When his "masters" are defeated by a Peking opera performer named Yee-tai (Lam Ching-ying: Mr. Vampire, Encounters of the Spooky Kind), Chang goes to extract revenge and for the first time is soundly defeated.

After the crushing realization that he has been lied too all of these years, Chang sets his sights on becoming Yee-tai's pupil. He attaches himself like a barnacle to the traveling opera troupe, slowly winning Yee-tai's acceptance though sheer willpower and warmhearted determination. However, Chang doesn't really get an education until an ironic set of circumstances forces Chang and Yee-tai to go into hiding. Much like Chang, Master Ngai is a favored son, only his henchmen take more drastic means than payoffs to secure his status as a formidable martial master- that is, they will slay, cripple, and poison anyone who is possibly more skilled. They kill off the troupe and poison Yee-tai, who along with Chang, seeks refuge with Yee-tai's brother (Sammo Hung). Under the guidance of the two squabbling brothers, Chang becomes skilled enough to face off with Master Ngai and prove which is the true... bum-bum-bum... prodigal son.

The early 80's found Sammo delivering a one-two punch of films showcasing the Wing Chun martial form, the Casanova Wong starring Warriors Two and Prodigal Son. I've honestly lost count of the number of times I've seen these two films, suffice to say if you are a Sammo Hung/Yuen Biao fan, owning Prodigal Son is a must.

Formulaic, kung fu standard "boy goes from wimp to kung fu stud thanks to some crotchety masters" plot aside, Prodigal Son rises above the rest because of its masterful choreography and the charismatic performance of legendary HK action scene stealer Lam Ching-ying. His role as an effeminate wing chun master who posses womanly grace and manly power is one of the great kung fu film roles, right up there with Simon Yuen's drunken master and Kwan Tak-hing's Wong Fei Hung. Sammo and Lam Ching-ying were good friends, and the role was supposedly custom made by Sammo for the (at the time) underappreciated performer.

The fight scenes in this film are simply put- a thing a beauty. It speaks so much to the level of athletics and precision the performers put into the choregraphy that the one complaint I have (other than the too goofy clowning in the final thrid) is that the grand finale is so short. It still works, and perhaps the lack of a ten minute long spectacle of fists and feet speaks more for the chracters and the situation, a swifter defeat of the bad guy. Maybe I just love everything that came before so much that I wish it wasnt over so quick.

The DVD: Fox

This makes the third copy of Prodigal Son DVD I own, the other two being the HK Universe and UK Hong Kong Legends releases.

Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The good- this is by far the sharpest picture, cleanest print, and most rich in terms of color. The bad- there is a near constant flickering. I'm unsure why the flickering is so extreme, why it couldnt be evened out during the mastering. So, it is a mixed bag. Though it isnt perfect, it is still a pretty decent job and should be welcome in a kung fu fans collection. As I said, the detials are all fantastic, from color, to contrast, to sharpness, putting the washed out HK and too soft UK transfers to shame. But there is that damn flicker that keeps it from being perfect.

Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS English or Cantonese audio options. English subtitles. Well,again Fox has these rather silly "remasters" which basically keep the old soundtrack, thin vocals and music, and lop on some new-fangeled sound fx, which are glaringly obvious in contrast to the original track. It is one of those cases where 'new" doesnt equal "better."

For once, Fox is offering a non "dubtitled" transfer. The subs are not just copied text from the English dub but are a more approximate translation of the original track. Just to give you an example, when one character is accused of making advances on another's chick, the English dub has the line, "Lets kill him!", whereas the subtitles offer the more appropriate translation of, "Lets castrate him!"

Extras: New and original trailers for Prodigal Son, plus trailers for Royal Warriors, Operation Scorpio, Young Master and Game of Death 2.

Conclusion: If you are a kung fu fan who owns either the HK or UK release, this edition still may be well worth buying. Yes, while it has considerable improvement over those editions in some areas, it also suffers from some flaws. Still, it is bargain priced and worth a casual purchase for fans and newbies alike.

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