Prodigal prodigy

A U.S. critic had described Wong Jing as the George Lucas of parody (as proven by High Risk). Putting into consideration that Jing’s knowledge of martial arts cinema is prolific and profound, it’s fitting that his co-authored script of The Prodigal Son is a spoof as well as a commentary about the evolution of martial arts cinema in the East. The plot device of Leung Chan (who’s played by Yuen Biao) being a fighter who is involved in fake fights is illustrative of the early martial arts movie stars who weren’t genuine martial artists. The stuntmen were hired to make them look good by reacting accordingly. When I was watching The Prodigal Son, I was reminded of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi due to the prodigal protagonist’s transformation (from overestimating his strength to downplaying it so that he can defeat the antagonist). Lucas stated that a film is only as good as its villain. However, The Prodigal Son has an antagonist who isn’t a true villain.

Regardless, the fake fighter aspect foreshadows Jing’s screenplay for High Risk in that Frankie Lone (i.e. Jacky Cheung’s character) is depicted as a fraudster who is blessed and cursed with somewhat capable stuntmen. Leung Chan doesn’t realize that he’s not the real deal, so he learns the hard way by losing to a Peking Opera performer who goes by the name of Leung Yee-Tai (who’s played by Lam Ching-Ying). The fight is treated like a musical number except fighting replaces dancing as an accompaniment to the singing and instrumentation. This would foreshadow Jing’s tendency to make movies which contain musical numbers. The H.K. film industry’s golden era had most of its stuntmen hail from the Peking Opera tradition. The rest of them hailed from the Wushu tradition of Mainland China (which could be described as a mixture of Kung Fu and ballet). Donnie Yen and Jet Li are such exponents of the Wushu style. Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, is another exponent.

As such, it’s unfortunate that Lucas didn’t go through with his idea of hiring Sammo Hung to choreograph the lightsaber duels. As for my analysis of The Prodigal Son, Kung Fu was deftly preserved by the Peking Opera troupes – a tradition that should’ve resulted in the Kung Fu musical genre, but Peking Opera lost popularity. In High Risk, Jet surpassing Jacky is an analogy about Wushu surpassing Peking Opera. Speaking of which, The Prodigal Son lampoons a folk song titled On the General’s Order (foreshadowing Jing’s Last China in China because it became Wong Fei-Hung’s theme song). The Prodigal Son contains a subtle spoof of One-Armed Boxer. It’s subtle because it’s not apparent that it’s a parody. In a movie titled Crippled Avengers, The Crippled Masters or One-Armed Swordsman, the disabled fighter would overcome any odds but The Prodigal Son shatters that convention. As a former Star Wars fan, I was reminded of Luke Skywalker losing his hand in The Empire Strikes Back.

Another example of a convention which is upturned is the eagerly awaited finale. I won’t spoil it for those who prefer not to ruin the surprise when they read film reviews. What I will say is that the expectation is seeing Leung Chan and Wong Wa-Po (the alumni of Yee-Tai) take on Ngai Fei’s callous bodyguards while Yee-Tai takes on the main foe. Like Star Wars, the antagonist serves under the emperor. The finale of The Prodigal Son manages to not be a retread of the similarly-structured finales of The Iron-Fisted Monk and Warriors Two. Jing even ridicules an idea that he invented for The Magnificent Butcher – combining Kung Fu with calligraphy. The spoof is done in such an elaborate and endearing way as to avoid being perceived as a parody. Speaking of Sammo’s other movie, Jing’s idea of a fat student being taught by a fat teacher could never be taken seriously in a Star Wars movie. Even as a sight gag, it would be dismissed as cheap comedy. 

What’s not known to most fans is that the role of Yee-Tai was conceived for a legendary Opera performer, but Sammo didn’t want the daily 4 hours schedule that the old guy’s opium habit would’ve dictated. This man was Tang Wing-Cheung. He was in a 1956 film with Bruce Lee – The Wise Guys Who Fool Around. Tang’s stage name was Sun-Ma Sze Tsang. It was rumoured that he was the only man in Hong Kong who had a special license to smoke opium. He would’ve been 65 going on 66 during filming (à la Simon Yuen Siu-Tin during Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master in 1978). For those doubting the quality of the fights, Kwan Tak-Hing was 11 years older and still managed to pull off fight scenes in The Magnificent Butcher (1979) and Dreadnaught (1981). He was 74 and 75 respectively. Undercranking the camera puts the elderly at ease for intricate fights (the only strain would be on the memory). Contrast this with Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, where Christopher Lee had a stunt double whose head was changed via CGI.

In The Prodigal Son, Leung Chan is a Southern Chinaman who comes across a Northern Chinaman with a situation that is similar to his own. Chan learns too late that his father had been paying his two Kung Fu instructors to fix fights. The Northern Chinaman, Ngai Fei, learns too late that his father has been paying his two guards to assassinate anybody who represents a threat to his son’s future as a ruler. The dynamic becomes more intriguing when both men find themselves wanting the attention of Yee-Tai. Chan wants to be his student, whereas Ngai wants to be his challenger. Another example of Jing’s symmetry is that Chan and Ngai punish their duos of protectors (too bad that Chan’s fight was taken out). Also symmetrical is that the older Leung learns from the younger Leung. This would make for a fantastic premise for a Star Wars movie. Alas, Lucas (à la Matt Groening for The Simpsons or Joss Whedon for Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is no longer in control of Star Wars. Such is the complacence brought forth by money.

A digression has to be in order when one learns that Bruce enjoyed acting effeminate for comedic value. He also enjoyed acting like a geek so as to trick punks who would be hit in a way that appeared incidental (Dirty Ho, anyone?). Maybe we could’ve seen him act in a film similar to Killer Nerd. It’s amusing (if not easy) to picture him in Lam Ching-Ying’s role as the masculine Wing Chun expert who some men believe is a feminine woman. When Bruce was alive, he planned to retire from martial arts movies in 1976 because he predicted that the trend would only last for half a decade. In Revenge of the Sith, Chancellor Palpatine is the villain but Anakin Skywalker as the finale’s antagonist didn’t realize it. This reminds me of Jing’s rewrites for The Magnificent Butcher. Lee Hoi-San as the antagonist doesn’t realize that his son is the true villain, but Sammo as the protagonist does. In The Prodigal Son, the antagonist finds out that his father is the true villain but the protagonist doesn’t.

In an old issue of Inside Kung Fu, Lucas mentioned that when he conceived Star Wars, he had envisioned Bruce Lee as the leader of the Jedi warriors. Had Bruce lived, he would definitely have been cast (given how Toshiro Mifune was considered for the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi). Bruce’s predilection for philosophy would’ve elevated the ambitious screenplay in the same way that the other actors had forced Lucas to remove the clunky exposition. The budget would’ve been bigger with Bruce being the biggest star. With this put into light, perhaps The Prodigal Son would’ve been advertised as being a comeback and a swansong. He partook in enough surprising self-deprecation to be less than macho as seen in a piece of artwork that he did with his son where only Brandon is musclebound. If Bruce wanted to stop bothersome producers from wanting to cast him again, the tagline would’ve been: “The Kung Fu king is a drag queen.”

After a typically strong mixture of comedy and drama, the bitter-sweet ending of The Prodigal Son is slightly alleviated by the fact that Chan becomes a life-saving teacher as can be seen in Warriors TwoThe Prodigal Son influenced Yuen Woo-Ping to make a Fist of Fury prequel titled Legend of a Fighter. The difference was that Yuen wanted less comedy. For a more abstract interpretation, seeing the character of Leung Chan go from a young student to an old master reminded me of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s journey in the Star Wars saga. Had Sammo been hired to work on the Star Wars prequels, the worldwide Kung Fu market could’ve seen Casanova Wong reprise his role as Cashier Hua in another Wing Chun film where he plays an old teacher (à la Mark Hamill reprising his role as Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens).

After all, Yuen Woo-Ping returned to the drunken beggar of the Drunken Master when he made True Legend. Ironically, Yuen wants to do a Wing Chun movie whereas Sammo wants to do a Tai Chi movie. I, for one, am not looking forward to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In theory, Donnie Yen’s presence should be enough for me to watch it but it will never amount to the same level of emotional excitement as the prequels nor will it have the same opportunities for action that would’ve finally proved to international mainstream audiences that Sammo is truly a force to be reckoned with. Even though Donnie is not as good as him at choreographing, it’s tepid for him to be involved but not be allowed to choreograph. It’s a pity that no-one didn’t take heed of Sammo’s homage to the franchise in Pedicab Driver.

People will question this article’s cover but, like H.K. film-makers, Lucas didn’t want testimonials included on his Star Wars posters. Not only would it distract from what it is you’re advertising but ringing endorsements always mean more from word of mouth. I’ve been trying to find the above poster for over a decade because it explains the absence of Wei Pai’s character. I always thought that Wei was wasted by being given this character to play. We never get to see him fight, although Sammo liked to cast against type – much akin to Lucas in that respect. We never saw Wei’s death in the movie, so this would imply that it is a deleted scene. I can’t help but think that the deletion of his death scene was because of him suffering from Tourette’s syndrome. This was the same reason why he didn’t get to do that many movies with the Venom mob. His next and final H.K. movie came out seven years later.

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