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Perhaps the Greatest Kung Fu Film Ever Made
on 26 July 2006
When asked what the greatest kung fu film of all time is, people always expect the answer to involve a Bruce Lee film. But, frankly, Lee's films were all pretty weak. Actually, the answer that might be given is "The Prodigal Son".
The film was directed by Hong Kong kung fu master Sammo Hung and utilises stunning sets and scenery, brilliant, unrelenting fight scenes and fantastic acting from the cast. For fans of Wing Chun kung fu, this is a must: the only film in history that has managed to utilise this form of kung fu and make it look good on screen (by combining it with Shaolin stances). The story itself revolves around the real Wing Chun masters Leung Yee Tai, the Chinese Opera performer and his pupil, Leung Jaan. In a nutshell, Leung Jaan is a spoilt "Prodigal Son" whose father pays opponents to lose fights to him. When he realises this, he sets out to become a truly great fighter under the tutelage of Leung Yee Tai. Unfortunately, the opera star is not so willing to be his Sifu.
The standout sequences in this film are whenever Leung Yee Tai is fighting using his Wing Chun, the brilliant Chinese Ninja assasination sequence, the comic/training sequence with Sammo Hung and Leung Yee Tai in the small village retreat and the climactic battle at the end.
Indeed, as is pointed out in the fantastically astute audio commentary by the enthusiastic, mannered Bey Logan, the film utilises shots unseen in Chinese cinema: they have stunning depth, lighting and scale giving the film a vibrant, living feel. My personal favourite is the haunting shot when Leung Jaan offers tea to Leung Yee Tai in the country retreat. Other DVD extras include a great interview with Yuen Biao with, thank god, somebody pointing out just how important he is to his Western fans. There is also an interview with arch villain Frankie Chan and a brilliant interview/sequence about Wing Chun itself.
Also, count how many times you see Yuen Biao stand in for somebody as an acrobat or to perform a kick: the man was unbelievably talented and, according to Logan, can actually be seen to fight himself in several sequences.
Quite frankly, not only a contender for the greatest martial arts film ever, but also the greatest martial arts DVD ever. Hong Kong Legends can be proud of this one. "The Prodigal Son" is one of those DVDs that should be put on to silence those who think that Chinese kung fu films are meaningless nonsense from the 1970s without intelligence or mastery.