Yip Man (also known as Ip Man, the legendary Wing Chun practitioner and teacher of Bruce Lee) told the story like this: A woman named Yim Wing Chun was being forced into an unwanted marriage, and one of the Five Elders (survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin Monastery) named Ng Mui taught her kung fu so that she could defend herself. Other variations on the legend suggest that the girl’s father was a disciple of Shaolin who pushed her to learn from the Shaolin masters, but that she modified it after watching a crane and snake fight, eventually teaching it to her husband. Her husband then named the Kung Fu system after her, and eventually brought it to the Red Boat Peking Opera Company.
At the time, many opponents of the Qing dynasty – including many former Shaolin monks and martial arts masters – disguised themselves as travelling opera performers. It was from this tradition that the skills were eventually taught and passed down, including to Leung Jan – perhaps the most well known Wing Chun practitioner – who would learn the style from Wong Wah-Bo and Leung Yee-Tai, respectively the male and “female” martial leads of the Red Boat Opera Company, each of whom is said to have been an expert on different aspects of Wing Chun. It’s this story, with a precocious DRUNKEN MASTER-like twist, that is dramatized in Sammo Hung’s incredible 1981 martial arts film THE PRODIGAL SON, which stars Yuen Biao as a young Leung Jan, the late Lam Ching-Ying as Leung Yee-Tai, and Sammo himself as Wong Wah-Bo
Now, Sammo was a dedicated practitioner of Wing Chun, but it was generally accepted that the style – which relies on close-range grappling and striking – didn’t make for dynamic viewing when put on film. Sammo had put an older, wiser version of Leung Jan (played by Bryan Leung) in a film previously in 1978’s WARRIORS TWO, but in THE PRODIGAL SON he wanted to show how Leung Jan came to initially learn Wing Chung, while adding to his legend in the same way that DRUNKEN MASTER added to the Wong Fei-hung legend. While the events of THE PRODIGAL SON are only tangentially related to actual history, much of the practice of the style and the theories behind it are entirely accurate – and Sammo entirely dispels the concerns of the dynamism of the style by assembling some of the most impressive martial arts displays in Kung Fu film history.
It should be noted that while the title refers to the biblical parable of “The Prodigal Son”, the literal translation is closer to something like “Son Ruining the Family” – and even that doesn’t quite reflect what’s going on in the film.
Leung Jan (Yuen Biao) is the most famous citizen of Kwangtung. The son of a wealthy family, he’s a notorious street brawler and Kung Fu fanatic who is assisted ably by his man-servant Yee Tong Choi (Chan Lung), despite being regularly challenged when traveling around the city. After a confrontation at a local restaurant (a fight at a restaurant in a Kung Fu movie? UNHEARD OF), we discover that Yee Tong Choi has actually been paying citizens to challenge – and lose – in confrontations with Leung, as he’s been instructed by Leung Jan’s wealthy father to protect his master at all costs. Even Leung’s martial arts trainers (one played by the great Lee Hoi San from THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN and MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER) intentionally lose to him, and he’s become cocky with his undeserved victories.
Three of Jan’s friends attend a travelling Peking opera show and pile backstage to meet the leading lady Leung Yee-tai (played by the very male – and very awesome – Lam Ching-Ying). The level of detail to these opera scenes are magnificent, clearly a result of Sammo’s (and Yuen Biao’s, and Lam Ching-Ying’s, etc.) own experience working in Peking opera. Check out Sammo’s performance in PAINTED FACES, or Tsui Hark’s incredible PEKING OPERA BLUES for more insight. The eventual discovery that Leung Yee-tai is a male humiliates the trio, who promptly get demolished by Leung Yee-tai’s Wing Chung martial arts mastery.
Of course, they eventually return with Leung Jan to get some revenge on their attackers. An overconfident Leung Jan boasts about having beaten 300 opponents, but Yee-tai is already well aware of Leung Jan’s reputation as a fraud. In a wonderful demonstration, the two show off their own Peking opera background by incorporating singing into their brief fight – it almost has a Bollywood feel – before Leung Yee-tai reveals Leung Jan’s shameful (though unknown to him) secret. He’s – of course – devastated by the realization, and embarrassed by his loss. He runs back to his kung-fu school and confronts his teachers, saying that he’ll fire them if they are unable to beat him in a fight. Realizing that they will be fired either way, the two decide to demolish their student, proving once and for all that his kung fu is – to use Leung Yee-tai’s words – “lousy”.
Learning from Yee Tong Choi about the promise made to his father to protect him, Leung Jan confronts his dad and pushes him to award Yee-tai with gifts in the hopes of bribing him into teaching him kung fu (“Thanks for pointing out my shortcomings”). Of course, Leung Yee-tai refuses, though he’s forced to change his tune after Leung Jan purchases the entire opera troupe, and gives himself the job as Yee-tai’s assistant – though still paired with his own trusty man-servant. In one of the most amusing running jokes in the film, Leung Jan asks Yee Tong Choi to attack him randomly to both prepare himself for unexpected fighting, and to test his skills, similar to how Inspector Clouseau asks Cato to do the same in A SHOT IN THE DARK. This leads to a number of badly timed assaults from Choi, much to Leung Jan’s chagrin.
Backstage we’re introduced to Lead actor Au (Wei Pai), who is playing General Guan Yu in the current performance, and we get some insight into the character – which is played entirely silent. In fact, Au doesn’t speak at all until he completes a post-performance ritual. All of this becomes awfully important after Au seduces the wife of a local man who decides to respond with EXTREME VIOLENCE. Au tells Yee-tai that he’s going to run away for a bit, which leads to Yee-tai quickly casting Leung Jang in the General Guan role. Of course, Leung Jang has no idea that the violent husband knows that his wife’s suitor plays the General Guan part in the play – and because of the dedicated silence of the part, Leung Jang refuses to speak and explain himself once the husband arrives to get revenge. Hopelessly outnumbered by the husband and his friends, Leung Jang ends up being destroyed until the skirmish ends up on stage – where Leung Yee-tai fends off the entire group single-handedly. The crowd actually boos this break in the story until some acrobats come on stage to win them back over. Man, crowds are so fickle.
Witnessing this entire display is Lord Ngai Fei (an awesome Frankie Chan), a manchu noble, and his two bodyguards Suen (Dick Wei) and Law (Chung Fat). Fei has been scouring the countryside looking for opponents to test his kung fu against, and his interest is peaked by the exhibition of skill. The three leave the theater, where we get one of the coolest scenes in the entire film. Obviously influenced by spaghetti western showdowns (and possibly Japanese chambara films), Ngai Fei runs into a man that he had fought years previously, and who had suffered a shattered arm in the process. Having trained his other arm for five years, the man (played by James Tien, a Bruce Lee regular) wants a rematch. Ngai Fei happily obliges, and the brief, windswept fight is terrific.
He suggests that the fighter improve his footwork over the next five years so he can challenge him again. How bad-ass is that? Since Ngai Fei wants to confront Yee-tai in person, he asks his guards to invite the entire opera troupe to dinner. Lord Ngai Fei is one of the most interesting “villains” in any old school kung fu film, as while he forces his opponents into battling him, he attempts to be entirely honorable regarding the actual fight. He truly just wants to prove himself as the best, which – as we’ll see – comes with some complications.
As the opera troupe arrives – including Leung Jang and, of course, Leung Yee-tai – Ngai Fei wastes no time in having his bodyguards test the fighter’s skills. Recognizing what is happening, Yee-tai easily avoids the confrontation, chalking the experience up to him getting some pre-meal exercise. Ngai Fei is impressed, and over dinner he makes his intentions very clear, even as Leung Yee-tai tries desperately to avoid the fight. Realizing that he has no choice, the two go outside to have one of the most memorably fluid and complex martial arts fights in history. Kung fu journalist and commentary legend Bey Logan calls it his very favorite fight, and it’s not difficult to see why. For anyone with reservations about the explosiveness of Wing Chun on film, this fight is a game changer.
You might be confused about the end of the fight. Well, it turns out that Leung Yee-tai suffers from asthma, and this was well before the days when you could just grab an inhaler from the pharmacist. It’s a rather crippling condition, but Ngai Fei refuses to take advantage of a weakened opponent. Instead, they will fight again once Yee-tai is well. See? He’s really not such a bad guy. I should mention that aside from putting in a heck of a performance as Ngai Fei, Frankie Chan also provided the excellent music for the film – either composed himself or by choosing library tracks. It’s all excellent, and just another example of how the attention to craft in THE PRODIGAL SON is a step above similar efforts at the time.
But here’s the great twist of the film. While Ngai Fei is truly a martial arts master, he’s also – like Leung Jang earlier in the film – being protected by his bodyguards from any real harm. By command of Lord Ngai Fei’s father, they’ve been instructed to murder any opponents that might injure the master. You can see how that might play into the rest of the plot. The guards Suen and Law get together a group of twenty men to attack the opera group that evening.
Meanwhile, Leung Yee-tai is recovering slowly from his asthma attack. What follows is a rather abrupt, but awfully effective change in tone for the film. The guards – along with their group of hired men – appear at the camp dressed as Japanese-style ninjas, noiselessly maneuvering around the camp and dispatching Leung Jang before entering the area where the entire group of performers are sleeping. After almost being discovered, the group proceed to murder ALL OF THE PERFORMERS by slitting their throats while they sleep. It’s gruesome, and rather shocking, and Yee-tai nearly suffers a similar fate, but catches the glint off of his attackers knife and manages to fend them off, eventually recognizing two of his opponents as Ngai Fei’s guards. The ninjas set the entire camp on fire, but a now-conscious Leung Jang knocks one of them out and dresses in his ninja garb, eventually rescuing a still-ill Leung Yee-tai and escaping in a near-by swamp – though Leung Jang’s leg is snapped in the process. The ninjas – and everyone else – presume that the two are dead.
Some time later we FINALLY meet Wong Wah-bo (Sammo Hung), Leung Yee-tai’s brother and (stocky) fellow expert in the Wing Chun style who lives a fairly quiet and remote life with his daughter Twiggy (Ho Wai-han) on a farm. Wah-bo is introduced practicing his calligraphy skills, which makes for one of the must amusing (and impressive) scenes in old school kung fu as Sammo (with help from a doubling Yuen Baio) flies around the room while teaching his daughter lessons in the craft. Hilarious. Amusingly, the scene begins with a quick clip of the famous Wong Fei-hung theme song, before it quickly deflates.
Both Leung Yee-tai and Leung Jang find sanctuary at the farm, but even while they recover the two brothers don’t get along. It’s all played very broadly – particularly the humor involving Twiggy (who really does look an awful lot like Sammo). There’s all sorts of comedic misunderstandings regarding Leung Jang insulting or assaulting Twiggy, but the main crux is that Leung Jang still wants Yee-tai to teach him Wing Chung kung fu, but Leung Yee-tai worries that the young, brash Jang will misuse the skill for his own gain. This leads to an excellent speech from Leung Jang (which we learn was prompted by Wong Wah-bo) where he states that if everyone had Yee-tai’s attitude, kung fu would have died out entirely. Recognizing the maturity in this friend, Yee-tai gives in and agrees to teach Leung Jang all he knows. This leads to a series of – as always – excellent training scenes, many of which are accompanied by Yee-tai explaining the very real tenants of the Wing Chung style.
While Leung Jang continually poked fun at the overweight Wong Wah-bo, Leung Yee-tai eventually reveals that – because of his own size – he can only teach him close quarters fighting. They devise a plan to track Wong into completing Leung Jang’s training, giving him the best of both of their skills. It’s a particularly brutal form of fighting, involving little mercy, and actively creating – and focusing on – the wounds of your opponents. Wong Wah-bo teaches him how to be sneaky, and how to use brute force to overwhelm his opponents. Alas, while Leung Jang is developing into a martial arts master, Leung Yee-tai’s asthma is getting worse. Wong asks Leung Jang to bring Yee-tai back to Fatshan for medical treatment.
Now, you have to remember that Leung Jang’s family and friends (including Yee Tong Choi) think that both Jang and Leung Yee-tai perished in the fire, and Yee Tong Choi has even gone as far as to purchase some magical ink so he can communicate with his dead master. In a really fun moment, the flashback of Choi purchasing the ink shows Peter Chan actually purchasing it from himself, with the taoist master looking suspiciously like his character from ENCOUNTERS OF THE SPOOKY KIND/SPOOKY ENCOUNTERS. Of course, Leung Jang shows up for real, and word soon spreads that the two are back on the scene – including to Ngai Fei who is still searching for a worthy opponent. He decides to visit the still-recovering Leung Yee-tai, unaware that it was his own guards that murdered his opera troupe friends, and attempted to kill both Leung Jang and himself. The encounter turns tragic when Yee-tai accuses the guards, who admit to their wrong-doing before viciously stabbing him in the stomach. Only now realizing Ngai Fei’s royal status – which would mean death for anyone who assaulted him, including the murder of that person’s extended family – Yee-tai spends his final moments stopping a returning Leung Jang from fighting Ngai Fei. With a splash of blood, Leung Yee-tai is dead.
The funeral is a solemn affair, including when Lord Ngai Fei makes an appearance and explains that he knew nothing about his guard’s actions. He also says that as punishment for their deceit, he had both of his guards decapitated. Which is awesome. He apologizes, and turns to leave.. but then Leung Jang asks him if he would like to practice, giving them both an opportunity to fight without lethal retribution.
It’s a wonderful, brutal fight which occasionally features Yuen Baio fighting himself while doing some doubling for Frankie Chan’s more acrobatic kicks. It’s perhaps a bit unfortunate that the fight itself is so short, but they pack plenty into the running time, including a final flurry aimed at a wound on Lord Ngai Fei’s head (just like Wong Wah-bo taught him!) that puts him down for the count. Leung Jang stops short of actually killing the Lord, receiving a compliment from him before walking away from the confrontation – secure in his badassdom. No arguments here.
Featuring a collection of some of the fastest, most intricate, and entertaining fighting scenes ever committed to film, and paired with an affecting, interesting plot full of wild, memorable characters, THE PRODIGAL SON might be the very best old-school martial arts film. It features a collection of performers – both in front and behind the cameras – working at the top of their game, particularly Lam Ching-Yim who gives one of the best performances of his impressive (and too short) career. While Sammo Hung is rightfully lauded for his abilities as a performer, his direction was miles ahead of most of his contemporaries. And when paired with the seemingly infinite abilities of Yuen Baio, the results were absolute magic.
The historical character Yim Wing Chun would later be played by Michelle Yeoh in Yuen Woo-ping’s 1994 film WING CHUNG, which co-starred notable Wing Chung practitioner Donnie Yen. Yen’s later international recognition would bring further attention to the style, particularly after the massive financial and popular success of the film IP MAN where Yen played the titular Ip (or Yip) Man, the Wing Chung grandmaster. With the film already sporting both a sequel and prequel, it’s safe to say that the future of onscreen Wing Chung practitioners is in good hands.
NEXT TIME: DANCE OF THE DRUNK MANTIS (1978)
Long live the fist,
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