Prodigal Son Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: September 12, 2023
Audio: Cantonese, Mandarin, and English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono (both versions)
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 104:42 (both versions)
Director: Sammo Hung Kam-bo
Leung Tsan (Yuen Biao) is a wealthy young man who thinks he's the Kung Fu King of the town of Foshan. However, after he is easily beaten by the star of a traveling opera troupe, Leung Yee-tai (Lam Ching-ying), he learns that all of his victories have been nothing but paid-for set-ups by his family out of a misguided act of protection. Devastated, Tsan pleads with Yee-tai to train him. Meanwhile, a mysterious challenger (Frankie Chan) and his ruthless Manchu bodyguards may end Leung’s journey before it can even begin. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
By the end of the 1970s, one time Peking Opera student, stunt performer, and martial arts choreographer Sammo Hung had moved to a semi-permanent home at Raymond Chow & Leonard Ho’s Golden Harvest and graduated to a top-tier first-unit director’s seat on his way to upper echelon of super-stardom. This was a transitional period in his career flecked by early directorial classics, including Warriors Two (1978), Knockabout (aka: The Fearless Master, 1979), The Magnificent Butcher (co-directed by Yuen Woo-ping, 1979), and Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980). A favorite among fans, The Prodigal Son (1981) was a prequel to Warriors Two and earned Hung his first Hong Kong Film Awards Best Film and Best Director nominations, as well as his first win for Best Choreography, which he shared with Lam Ching-ying, Yuen Biao, and Billy Chan.
Experts will describe that the depth of Hung’s comedy and explain how it extends to the use of ‘long’ and ‘short’ forms of Wing Chun, which subverts martial arts orthodoxy and gender roles, but the rest of us don’t need that information to appreciate the juxtaposition of styles can be. Choreography and meta-jokes aside, the jokes themselves just tend to land with more regularity and efficiency than the contemporary-set Lucky Stars series that Hung made a couple of years later. The broadest gags are pushed to the first act, which magnifies the shock of a big story shift in the middle of the movie and allows for slightly more nuanced, character-based jokes and cute callbacks (poop jokes aside). It helps that the fight scenes and stunts are so good that you don’t really have to find the film funny to enjoy it. At its best, Prodigal Son feels like a kind of bridge between Lau Kar-luen’s late-stage Shaw Bros. movies, Hung’s still developing ‘80s style, and Stephen Chow’s work in the following decade. The satirical use of kung fu plot clichés and touches, like cartoonish facial appliances and two characters singing to each other while fighting, feels particularly Chow-esque to me.
Star Yuen Biao trained at the same Peking Opera School alongside Hung, Jackie Chan, Corey Yuen, and Yuen Wah. As the so-called Seven Little Fortunes (a misnomer for a group of up to 14 children) grew into the region’s most influential actors, performers, choreographers, and filmmakers, the group continued to support one another throughout their careers, often working on the same movies. Hung had given Yuen a supporting role in his second film as lead director, Warriors Two (1978), then upgraded him to co-star for Knockabout. Prodigal Son was the duo’s fifth collaboration as director and actor/choreographer, following Yuen’s cameos in The Victim (1980) and Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind. The cast is rounded out with co-choreographer Lam Ching-ying (minus his trademark eyebrows), the future star of the Mr. Vampire series, Bruce Lee collaborator James Tien, former Shaw Bros. regulars Lee Hoi-sang and Dick Wei, and Frankie Chan as the main antagonist .
Sammo Hung, the One and Only by Lam Chiu-wing (from Golden Harvest: Leading Change in Changing Times, Hong Kong Film Archives, 2013)
Stateside Sammo Hung fans could rent or purchase Prodigal Son on 1.33:1 VHS or non-anamorphic DVD from Tai Seng and 20th Century Fox finally put out an anamorphic disc in 2004, followed by the film’s 2022 Blu-ray debut from Eureka in the UK as a double-feature with Warriors Two. Based on previous releases, I believe that this Arrow Blu-ray’s 4K restoration of original film elements (I’m guessing negatives, but don’t know) is the same one provided to Eureka by rights holder Fortune Star, but assume that each studio did its own grading, et cetera. There are two slightly different versions of the film included here, both in 1080p, 2.40:1 HD video. Most of these Fortune Star transfers look basically the same, featuring buoyant colors and decent details, but also definite signs of DNR and similar effects. That said, to my eyes this is one of the better collaborations between the studio and Arrow, producing superior detail, even brighter colors, and nice dynamic range. There are still signs of digital tampering leaving space for future improvement from anyone that got their hands on the negatives. Textures are slightly lacking and grain has a blobby quality, but, again, I see this as a minor overall improvement on similar recent releases.
Both cuts of Prodigal Son are presented with Cantonese, Mandarin, and English dub options, each in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound. The actors appear to be speaking Cantonese on set and the lip sync/performance on the Cantonese track is solid, so I suppose it’s the best option, though the mixes are very similar and, interestingly, the Peking Opera performances are still in Cantonese, no matter which track you’re watching. It’s a nice touch that the opera troupe speak with English accents and whoever’s dubbing Lam Ching-ying does a good job playing up the femininity of the performance. The original score is provided by Phil Chen and actor Frankie Chan, though it features a number of traditional pieces and recycled cues.
Commentary with Frank Djeng and Robert “Bobby” Samuels (both versions) – Everyone’s favorite NY Asian Film Festival programmer and kung fu movie expert, Djeng, is joined on another fact-filled commentary by martial artist and actor Samuels, originally recorded for the Eureka Blu-ray. This is a typical Djeng track, covering cast & crew bios, historical and cultural context, filmmaker trademarks, and Prodigal Son’s place in the early ‘80s kung fu canon. Samuels fills in a few missing factoids and rounds things out with martial arts breakdowns and personal stories from his time working in Hong Kong.
Commentary with Mike Leeder and Arne Venema (both versions) – Casting director/stunt coordinator/producer Leeder and Venema, the critic and director/co-writer (with Leeder) of the upcoming doc Neon Grindhouse: Hong Kong take their usual approach by focusing more on historical and cultural contexts (with heavy focus on Peking opera), but from the point-of-view of Western outsiders who live/lived in Hong Kong. They also include a bunch of their own anecdotes from various film sets.
Wing Chun 101 (30:01, HD) – Djeng interviews Sifu Alex Richter, who gives us a tour of the City Wing Tsun school in Manhattan and a demonstration, and talks about Wing Chun, Sammo Hung, and martial arts movies (he looked up to Bruce Lee and has particular respect for Prodigal Son and Warriors Two as a Wing Chun practitioner).
The Heroic Trio (26:54, SD) – This featurette includes clips from 2002 interviews with Hung, Yuen Biao, and Frankie Chan, all speaking about the making of Prodigal Son.
Life Imitating Art (27:14, HD) – A 2002 interview with producer/instructor Guy Lai that includes martial arts demonstrations from Sifu Austin Goh and Jude Poyer.
Alternate English credits (1:46, HD)
Hong Kong trailer, international trailer, US home video trailer
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.