The kung-fu style of Wing Chun (a.k.a. Wing Chun Kuen or Ving Tsun) was initially created by a Buddhist nun called Ng Mui, supposedly inspired by seeing a snake and a crane fighting. She later taught it to a young girl named Yim Wing-chun (which translates as ‘beautiful springtime’), who refined the style and lent it her name.

The martial arts style grew in popularity and a chain of folk hero proponents appeared from it. One of the earliest of these was Leung Tsan, who later trained ‘Change-giver’ Chan Wah, who went on to teach the legendary Ip Man (a.k.a. Yip Man and popularised in the film series that shares his name). Cementing the importance of these figures was the fact that Ip Man trained Bruce Lee in Wing Chun, ensuring the whole group kept a place in martial arts history.

In the late 1970s, Sammo Kam-Bo Hung (better known in the West as simply Sammo Hung) was emerging as a director and wanted to do something different in the flooded kung-fu movie market. So he decided to focus his next film on Wing Chun, which hadn’t yet been properly captured on screen, largely because it was believed to not be a very ‘photogenic’ style, due to its close-quarters, hand-focussed approach.

That film was Warriors Two, which depicted the training of ‘Change-giver’ Wah by Leung Tsan. It’s a title that didn’t perform particularly well at the Hong Kong box office at the time but has later been praised for its choreography and depiction of Wing Chun, which has gone on to be better appreciated in films.

Undeterred, and encouraged by the great success of his Encounter of the Spooky Kind in 1980, Sammo returned to the subject of Wing Chun’s folk heroes to make The Prodigal Son in 1981. This proved much more popular with contemporary audiences and was a big hit.

The Prodigal Son is still thought of as one of Sammo’s greatest films and to celebrate it and the qualities of its predecessor, Warriors Two, the pair are being released in a handsome new Blu-ray boxset by Eureka Classics. I’m a fan of both films but hadn’t seen them for a while, so got hold of a copy of these new discs to give my thoughts.

Warriors Two

Director: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung
Screenplay: On Szeto
Starring: Ka-Yan Leung (as Chia-Jen Liang), Ho Wang (as Casanova Wong), Sammo Kam-Bo Hung (Ching-Pao Hung), Chia-Yung Liu, Billy Chan, Hark-On Fung, Ching-Ying Lam, Dean Shek
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 95 mins (HK cut), 90 mins (international export cut)
Year: 1978

As mentioned, Warriors Two tells the story of how ‘Change-giver’ Wah met Leung Tsan and was trained in the art of Wing Chun. Taking a little of the known history of the pair and adding plenty of artistic license, the story has Wah (Ho Wang, or as he’s better known in the West and credited here, Casanova Wong) come across a plot by the businessman Mo (Hark-On Fung) to murder the mayor and take over the reins himself to increase his power over the region.

Wah accidentally reports this to one of Mo’s minions, the slimy Master Yao (Dean Shek), so becomes a target of the villain himself. After getting beaten up and almost killed, Wah is hidden at Tsan’s clinic (he’s a doctor) by one of the master’s students, Fei Chun (Sammo himself).

As Mo’s men persist to cause trouble for Wah, most notably killing his mother, Chun talks Tsan into teaching the young man the art of Wing Chun.

James Oliver, in the enclosed booklet, as well as other commentators, have described this, Sammo Hung’s third film as director, as his first masterpiece. I’m not sure I’d go quite this far, though it certainly has a lot going for it.

It’s a straightforward, no-nonsense kung-fu movie that simultaneously benefits from that approach through how much top drawer action is squeezed in with few distractions (after establishing the story at least) but also suffers from it due to there being little weight behind the fights. Yes, our hero’s mother gets killed which is a strong reason for revenge, but we never meet the mother or see her killed, so the audience is less invested in that strand of the plot. This issue appears throughout, with our hero’s journey skimmed over in favour of more fights or Sammo’s comedy high jinx.

The fight scenes keep the film in the upper echelons of Sammo’s great career though. After 25 minutes with no full, true dust-ups, the film begins a steady stream of incredible action sequences. Sammo studied Wing Chun for the film and had his main cast members train in it too. As such, it quite authentically depicts the martial art style and a lot of time is spent explaining how its techniques work in the enjoyable training sequences. Great use is made of Cassanova Wong’s kicking skills too, which aren’t part of the hand and arm-focussed Wing Chun but make for some astonishing fights.

I didn’t find the comedy injected here quite as effective as in some of Sammo’s other films though. Broad Hong Kong comedy is an acquired taste at the best of times and doesn’t always translate well to English, but I usually enjoy it. Unfortunately, there are few truly memorable gags here.

On a whole though, whilst I found the plot a little too slight and the comedy a little lacklustre, once the action kicks in it doesn’t matter. Loaded with exceptionally well-choreographed fights, it’s a dream for kung-fu fans, showing Sammo’s skills both behind and in front of the camera, not forgetting the underrated Wong’s skills as a martial artist.

Film:

The Prodigal Son

Director: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung
Screenplay: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, Barry Wong, Jing Wong
Starring: Biao Yuen, Ching-Ying Lam, Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, Frankie Chan, Lung Chan, Yau-Hau Chan, Ching Po Chang
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 105 min
Year: 1981

Taking a leaf out of George Lucas’ book (or visa versa as this was long before Episode One), The Prodigal Son is an unnoficial prequel to the previously made Warriors Two. Whereas that film saw Leung Tsan pass his skills on to ‘Change-giver’ Wah, The Prodigal Son looks at how Tsan became a Wing Chun expert to begin with.

In Sammo’s once again heavily fictionalised account, Yuen Biao plays a young Tsan. At the start of the film he’s a sure-of-himself rich kid who loves to streetfight. In his mind he’s undefeated but his brawls are actually all being rigged by his assistant Yee Tung-choi (Chan Lung) at the request of Tsan’s father (Yau-Hau Chan), with potential fighters being paid off beforehand to either lose or leave him alone.

However, when Tsan tries to defend the honour of some of his bumbling friends at a visiting Peking Opera, the truth is revealed by one of the female-impersonating stars of the show, Leung Yee-tai (Lam Ching-ying), who easily defeats Tsan in a fight.

Tsan is furious to discover he’s been cheated all this time, so proceeds to doggedly pursue Leung on his opera tour, in a bid to get the martial artist to train him in Wing Chun.

Meanwhile, Lord Ngai Fei (Frankie Chan), the son of a Manchu duke, is scouting the area, looking for worthy opponents to fight. He comes across Leung and challenges him, though the Wing Chun master’s asthma puts a stop to their ensuing conflict. Whilst he recovers and Fei waits for a second contest, the Lord’s guards conspire to kill Leung, as they too have been ordered to protect their master’s son at any cost.

Though similar in a number of ways, I find that The Prodigal Son is a more refined film than Warriors Two, feeling more mature in terms of character development and storytelling. It boasts some impressive production design and photography too (the latter from the great Ricky Lau Koon-wai), with plenty of camera movement making the most of the attractive period sets.

James Oliver, in the booklet, claims the choreography is essentially stronger in Warriors Two and I wouldn’t necessarily argue with that, but do find The Prodigal Son does a better job of pacing the fights throughout the film, as well as boasting a slightly wider range of choreography. It makes better use of props and setting in the fights too, on top of straight-up hand-to-hand combat, an approach he’d been developing over the last few films.

The Peking Opera backdrop also adds a personal touch, as Sammo, Yuen Biao and Lam Ching-ying all came from Peking Opera schools. Their abilities in this field are put to great use in some stunning acrobatic feats and colourful musical sequences. The most impressive scene comes when the famous flag jumping trick is given a thrilling twist by having the huge flag engulfed in flames with the opera itself burning around the characters.

I also like how the ‘bad guy’ here, Ngai Fei, isn’t actually all that bad, particularly by the end. He is, in fact, another prodigal son, like Tsan. He just wants to prove his worth as a fighter. You might think this would make for a weak final showdown but, after all that comes before it, there’s still weight in their fight at the end of the film and the blood and aggression levels are ramped up to dramatic effect.

The film was reportedly written by two screenwriters, with Barry Wong Ping-yiu covering the first half and Wong Jing largely writing the second. This disparity shows, with a notable difference between the two halves. The central cut from a truly shocking opera incident to Sammo’s comedic martial arts calligraphy is rather jarring and it causes a bit of a stumble in pacing. However, once this new style kicks into gear it’s a lot of fun and, as ever, the steady flow of action keeps you watching.

Sammo’s comedic scenes are better handled here than in the earlier film too, with a few laugh-out-loud, albeit often low-brow gags, such as a memorable bit of toilet humour and the aforementioned calligraphy sequence.

Overall then, despite occasionally jarring in its tonal shifts, The Prodigal Son still ends up being one of the most consistently impressive and well-rounded kung-fu movies of its era. Packed with superb fight scenes, some enjoyably goofy humour and impressive visuals, it’s up there with Sammo’s best.

Film:

Warriors Two and The Prodigal Son is out on 24th January on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. The picture quality on both titles is fantastic, with the films looking clean and sharp, with rich, pleasingly natural colours. You get both Cantonese and English dubbed audio options. I went with the Cantonese on both viewings and found the transfer solid. It’s hard to make these old Golden Harvest productions sound impressive but I didn’t spot any glaring issues.

LIMITED EDITION SPECIAL FEATURES

– Limited Edition Set – 3000 copies
– Limited Edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling
– Limited Edition reversible poster featuring original Hong Kong artwork
– A Limited Edition collector’s booklet illustrated with rare archival imagery and featuring new writing by James Oliver; a reprint of Frank Djeng’s original liner notes for The Prodigal Son from the US laserdisc release; and reprints of Warriors Two’s original sales notes and theatrical flyer

DISC ONE : WARRIORS TWO – TWO VERSIONS OF THE FILM, BOTH FULLY RESTORED IN 2K
– Warriors Two: Hong Kong Theatrical Version (95 mins)
– Warriors Two: International Export Version (90 mins)
– Original Cantonese mono audio (Hong Kong Version)
– Optional English dubbed audio (Hong Kong and Export Versions) (Note: English audio was originally created for the shorter export version, when playing English audio on Hong Kong version, some scenes will still be Cantonese w/ subtitles)
– Optional English Subtitles, newly translated for this release
– Brand new feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) and martial artist / actor Robert “Bobby” Samuels [Hong Kong Version]
– Brand new feature length audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema [Export Version]
– Making of “Warriors Two” featurette
– Stills galleries including rare production stills, artwork, and ephemera
– Trailers

DISC TWO: THE PRODIGAL SON – FULLY RESTORED IN 2K
– Original Cantonese mono audio
– Optional English dubbed audio
– Optional English Subtitles, newly translated for this release
– Brand new feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) and martial artist / actor Robert “Bobby” Samuels
– Brand new feature length audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema
– Archival interview with Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, and Frankie Chan
– Archival interview with Guy Lai
– ‘Wing Chun 101’, an interview with Wing Chun expert, Sifu Alex Richter, conducted by Frank Djeng
– Alternate English credits
– Stills galleries including rare production stills, artwork, and ephemera
– Trailers

Frank Djeng and Bobby Samuels’ commentaries spend a good portion of each of them telling Samuels’ personal story, which isn’t related to the film (other than including some of the actors on screen, particularly Sammo) but it’s fascinating nonetheless, him being reportedly the only black actor working in Hong Kong kung fu movies. The pair have a good rapport too and clearly have a great passion and knowledge of the film and genre.

Mike Leeder and Arne Venema’s commentaries, as usual, are not particularly loaded with insight into the making of the films but provide enjoyably affectionate watch-alongs that are a pleasure to listen to.

Surprisingly, Bey Logan can be seen presenting the 47-minute archive making-of on the Warriors Two disc. This is surprising because his Hong Kong Legends commentaries have been kept off Eureka’s releases of the defunct label’s titles. This is due to the disturbing sexual misconduct allegations made about Logan, as well as his involvement in the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Thankfully his on-screen contributions here are fairly minimal, with the documentary largely made up of interviews with principal cast and crew members. It’s an illuminating piece that discusses Wing Chun in general, as well as the film’s production.

On the Prodigal Son disc, the Sifu Guy Lai interview is just under 30 mins and provides an interesting history of Wing Chun and its use in the film, though portions of the same interview are included in the Warriors Two making of, so there’s a lot of crossover. The demonstrations from Sifu Austin Goh are a nice addition though.

The group interview/making-of featurette is, again, just under half an hour and sees some of the core Prodigal Son team discuss the film from inception through to production. The sound levels are distractingly inconsistent in a couple of places, but it’s a decent piece nonetheless.

Another great feature which, for some reason, is not mentioned on the back of the box is called ‘Wing Chun 101’. It’s also just under 30 mins and sees Frank Djeng interview Sifu Alex Richter, a Wing Chun instructor teaching in New York. After discussing his background and interest in the films included in the set, he demonstrates some Wing Chun moves. Djeng even has a go at the end. It’s a nice piece that got me interested in contacting my local Wing Chun school, in fact.

Finally, you get one of Eureka’s excellent booklets, which includes a couple of essays from James Oliver on the two films, as well as some archive writing and imagery.

So, a well-compiled package for a pair of kung-fu classics. It gets a very high recommendation from me.

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Warriors Two and The Prodigal Son - Eureka
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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