Bai ga jai

(The Prodigal Son, Hong Kong - 1981)

by Matt White

Cast: Yuen Biao, Lam Ching-ying, Frankie Chan Fan-kei, Peter Lang Chan, Sammo Hung Kam-bo, Wei Pai, Dick Wei
Genre: Martial Arts/Comedy
Director: Sammo Hung Kam-bo
Screenplay: Sammo Hung Kam-bo, Barry Wong, & Jing Wong
Cinematography: Ricky Lau
Composer: Frankie Chan & Phil Chen
Runtime: 104 minutes

The Prodigal Son is probably Sammo Hung's masterpiece and one of the most ground breaking martial arts films of its time. According to Thomas Weisser's book, Asian Cult Cinema, Prodigal Son is considered to be the "birth of modern chop socky." I would have to be in agreement with this statement. However, as a history major in college I learned the importance of looking at patterns. Events do not "just happen"; there are several events that lead up to a certain occurrence. It would be good to understand the trends of Hong Kong cinema at the time that helped produce this excellent film.

First, one needs to understand traditional "chop socky" or kung fu films. This trend started in 1964 with the release of the Shaw Brothers produced and King Hu directed Come Drink With Me, a film that featured the debut of Cheng Pei Pei (who played Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The film took a lot of influence from the films of Akira Kurosawa in terms of choreography and cinematography, but added a certain Chinese flavor. However, the films of King Hu such as Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen were more dramas with kung fu in them. Kung Fu films really took off with the release of Chang Cheh's The One Armed Swordsman (1966), a film that introduced action for the sake of action and gruesome fight scenes. This was followed by Shaw Brothers movies such as One Armed Swordsman 2, One Armed Boxer and Five Fingers of Death.

The stars of those movies, Cheng Pei Pei and Jimmy Wang Yu usually had to use stunt doubles. Golden Harvest upped the ante with the release of The Big Boss in 1971, starring an American born Chinese in Li Xiao-lung who used his English name, Bruce Lee. He did all his own fight scenes and worked with a stunt team of future stars in Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao. After Lee's death in 1974, Golden Harvest abandoned kung fu films and opted to produce Cantonese dialect comedies (although Cantonese is the main dialect of Hong Kong, all movies before then were in Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles). Due to this, Shaw Brothers had to raise the quality of their kung fu films (that were still highly profitable).

This led to a golden period for Shaw Brothers and kung fu films in general. The main directors at Shaw Brothers, Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-leung (Liu Chia-liang) produced a series of classic films with their own characteristics. Cheh stayed with the formula of Mandarin dialect, gory, kung fu films centered around all male casts, usually with themes of brotherhood and revenge. The results were classics like the Five Deadly Venoms, Five Tigers from Kwantung, and Five Element Ninja (Super Ninjas). Lau on the other hand made Cantonese dialect films, centered around kung fu technique and moral development. This produced the classics like 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Master Killer), Challenge of the Ninja (Heroes of the East) and Dirty Ho. Even though the tone of Cheh and Lau's films differed, they featured the same clichés of revenge and a really evil villain (usually a Manchu or Japanese), with the vengeance being transacted after the learning of a new kung fu technique. However, an alteration of this formula took place in the late 70's.

1978 saw the release of two films that would change the face of Hong Kong film for a long time: Snake In the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master. Both were directed by Yuen Woo-ping and starred a struggling movie actor by the name of Chan Sing-lung, known by his English name as Jackie Chan. The films infused comedy in the traditional kung fu mold (following the Cantonese comedy trend started by Golden Harvest) and gave spark to dying genre. Chan would follow up these two films by becoming a director himself and making The Fearless Hyena and Young Master (his first film for Golden Harvest), both being highly successful. This started a new trend of all kung fu movies including Shaw Brothers releases having some sort of comedy element.

To finally complete this cycle there are the so-called "New Wave" films of directors like Tsui Hark, Patrick Tam, Yim Ho and Ann Hui. In any new wave tradition its common practice is to take already established genres and turn them on their head. Patrick Tam's The Sword (1980) was one of the first to attempt this. Rather than being a typical "revenge my master" type of film, it had a story about a Swordsman seeking out a kung fu master just so he can duel with him, and along the way meeting a perky young female wannabe and a lost love (Sound somewhat familiar? It influenced Ang Lee to make Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). All of this is told with a striking visual style that had not been seen in Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest efforts. Hong Kong films soon began to take a much more visual tone.

Okay, so its now 1981 and you have a film like Prodigal Son that infuses the traditional kung fu efforts of Shaw Brothers by being centered around learning a kung fu technique (Wing Chun in this movie), the comedy aspects of Golden Harvest films in general, and a more story oriented film with a non-traditional plot in the vein of the Hong Kong New Wave. The Prodigal Son is in actuality a prequel to a film that Sammo Hung had made three years earlier called Warriors Two. In that film the heroes meet an old kung fu master named Leung Chang, who teaches them the secrets of Wing Chun, allowing them to defeat the nasty villains. That was a traditional kung fu movie, and a very good one at that. The Prodigal Son is about Leung Chang when he is just a teenager and focuses on his maturation as he learns kung fu. The film, using Leung Chang as its main pivot point, becomes a parody and commentary about the evolution of kung fu films in Chinese culture.

When Leung Chang is first introduced, he is shown easily handling some guys who want to dispute his reputation of being the toughest fighter in his hometown of Fatshan (in Guangdong province). However, there is something that is not right about the fight. Leung Chang (Yuen Biao) is a spoiled rich kid, and unbeknownst to him his dad is paying off people to lose fights to him because he does not want to see his son hurt. He also makes sure the trainers go easy on Leung Chang. In a way, this can be seen as an allegory for the state of kung fu movies in the pre-Bruce Lee era. None of the main stars were legit fighters in that time and more experienced stunt men had to make them look good, usually putting their lives more at risk by taking sick bumps.

Leung Chang finds out that he is a horrible fighter when he has a duel with a Peking Opera performer named Leung Yee-tai (Lam Ching-ying). Most of the stunt men (and future stars) in the 1960's through late 1980's came from the Peking Opera tradition. Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Yuen Woo-ping, Corey Yuen, Yuen Wah, and Philip Kwok all got their start in Peking Opera. Even Jet Li received his training in a performance style of Kung Fu. The Opera was also the preserver of kung fu traditions because they were taught by exiled Shaolin Monks. During the late Manchu period and the modernization of China, the Opera performers were the ones who preserved the Chinese martial arts.

The main thrust however comes in the evolution of the film's protagonist (Leung Chang) and the "antagonist" Ngai (Frankie Chan). Ngai is the son of a Manchu ruler and really is a good fighter. Both are always looking for a fight, and look at fighting as some sort of hobby, with Ngai, who is from north China being in south China for the purpose of meeting great fighers. Ngai always wants to have "friendly" matches with people so he can test his kung fu ability, while Leung is always eager to pick a fight (even though the results are rigged). Similarly, Ngai has two bodyguards who kill any fighter they feel is a threat to Ngai.

In one scene, another play on traditional kung fu movies, Ngai meets man whom he crippled in the left arm a few years before. The man had now trained his right arm to defeat Ngai. He is dispensed with in no time flat and now has his right arm crippled as well. A few years before, this would have been the plot of a whole Kung Fu movie (see Chang Cheh's Crippled Avengers), but in this film its just a two minute scene, and the character does not even get his revenge. Another example of this is when Ngai finds out that his two bodyguards are killing his potential opponents. He just has them beheaded. In a normal kung fu movie, the protagonist would have to go through the two henchmen to get to the main bad guy (which happened in Warriors Two). The clichés of previous kung fu films are being turned on their heads.

Not to mention, Ngai is not particularly that evil in any sense of the imagination. He is much like Leung Chang. He is just a spoiled kid who has nothing else better to do than seek out good fights. The only thing that separates Leung Chang from Ngai is that in the end Leung matures and realizes that fighting is a very serious matter. Leung had the privilege of learning the real essence of kung fu from a seasoned master and layman in Leung Yee-tai and his "brother" Wong Wa-po (Sammo Hung in a great cameo). Ngai is in error, he is not evil, and that is how generally most people really are. Because of his insistence on fighting, it ends up killing Leung Yee-tai (he is poisoned by Ngai's bodyguards because he was considered too great a threat), which leads to Leung Chang to exact the revenge for his master. However, Leung Chang is only doing it to give Ngai the match that he never had with Leung Yee-tai and to show the futility of having a "friendly match."

There cannot be a review of this movie without talking about the fight choreography. It is close to being some of the best fighting put on celluloid. Sammo Hung searched all over Hong Kong for Wing Chun masters to learn everything about the famous but obscure kung fu technique. In order to completely convey the beauty of this fighting art, the fights are photographed in these beautiful long takes. Now granted there is not really any insanely long fight scenes that you would see in a Shaw Brothers film made a few years earlier, but that is not the thrust of the movie. When I first saw the movie I was put off by the truncated length of the climax, but looking back its fitting. Throughout the movie, Leung Chang is taught by Leung Yee-tai that fighting is about being ruthless, its not a game. The final fight is exactly that: ruthless. It reflects that Leung Chang has realized he is not there to play games but to win, and do it at any cost. To Ngai, it is still just a fun thing to do and he loses because of it.

The movie is about Wing Chun (and in a sense any art martial or otherwise) and how it develops moral character by creating discipline and a view of right and wrong. That was an important lesson then and still is today. Kung Fu films, wrestling and shoot fighting are great to watch (as was opera back then), but it is very easy to lose perspective of the seriousness of what is going on in all those mediums. Someone could get hurt very easily. With The Prodigal Son, Sammo Hung was trying to get back to the true root of martial arts and he did it by focusing on the discipline of a much heralded (Wing Chun was the initial form that Bruce Lee learned under the tutelage of the master Yip Man) but rare style.

Eastern Condors (1987) and Pedicab Driver (1989) are Sammo Hung's other best films, but Prodigal Son probably edges them out as his best. Both Eastern Condors and Pedicab Driver are flawed classics, but there are really no flaws in The Prodigal Son. It is filmed and acted brilliantly. The production design is first rate (as were most Golden Harvest period films, which always had bigger budgets than their Shaw counterparts), as is the cinematography by Hong Kong ace Ricky Lau. Lau went on to direct the really famous (and Hung produced) Mr. Vampire (1985), which also had great production design and photography (especially for a Hong Kong movie).

The comedic pacing, as in most Hung efforts, is first rate. It follows the typical pattern of situation comedy that Golden Harvest films in general do so well. This is also helped by the cast. Yuen Biao always did a good job of playing the wide-eyed and innocent teenager. In this film he probably gives his best execution of that sort of role. Unfortunately, it is a typecast that he could never shake. Another typecast done to perfection is the late Lam Ching-ying as Leung Yee-tai. Lam, a Sammo Hung stunt team regular, always did a great job of playing the older and wiser master, and would become famous for it in Mr. Vampire. Frankie Chan is really good as well as the spoiled kid Ngai. Chan would never really do anything of note outside of this film and he certainly never had a classic fight like the climax of this film.

It is a real shame that actor/director Sammo Hung has not got the credit he deserves in the west like his contemporaries Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-ping. Most will only remember him briefly from the short lived TV series Martial Law. Unlike Chan and Yuen Woo-ping, Hung experimented with different genres and is the true leader of modernizing kung fu from its traditional structure. Ironically, he would never direct another kung fu movie until 1993 with the overlooked but really good Blade of Fury. Even though Jackie Chan popularized the contemporary kung fu actioner with Police Story (1985), it would not have happened if he did not star in the contemporary Hung directed films like Winners and Sinners, My Lucky Stars and Wheels on Meals. Even though all the aforementioned films were mega hits they were never taken seriously, usually they written off as ensemble action comedies (a sub-genre that Hung mastered and even top notch western directors like Steven Soderbergh cannot get right), however they set the stage for what Chan would do in the mid to late 80's.

The Prodigal Son changed kung fu films for good. That is why it is called the first "modern chop socky" because almost every kung fu film afterwards took a revisionist tone. The only traditional kung fu film of note after 1981 was Lau Kar-leung's 18 Legendary Weapons of China (1983). However, it was released in the sea of revisionist kung fu films like Jackie Chan's Young Master in Love, Ching Siu-tung's Duel To The Death and Tsui Hark's Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain. After 1983, the genre was dead and would not be revitalized until 1990-91 with the release of King Hu's The Swordsman and Tsui Hark's Once Upon A Time in China. However, those films did not follow the pattern of a Shaw Brothers movie. They followed the revisionist pattern set by Sammo Hung's The Prodigal Son.



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