The Prodigal Son (1981)
The Prodigal Son (1981)

Genre: Action Comedy and Martial Arts Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.

Release Date: December 22nd, 1981 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Sammo Hung Actors: Biao Yuen, Ching-Ying Lam, Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, Frankie Chan, Lung Chan, Yau Hau Chan, Ching Po Chang




n a southern China town, Master Leung Chang (Biao Yuen) becomes a self-proclaimed “kung fu king,” proving to be unbeatable by all those who challenge him. A cook, who wants to start a gym, confronts the reigning champ, only to be swiftly defeated. And when a man with a powerful brick-breaking strike (“Iron Paw”) decides to approach Chang, he’s also quickly dispatched. But the truth of the matter is that contestants are regularly paid to fake fight against the king, just to keep up his confidence, his image, and the longstanding ruse (he’s “won” over 300 matches).

As it turns out, Chang’s wealthy mother and father support this routine, wanting desperately to keep their only child from harm. But this turns Chang into a laughingstock when opera actor Leung Yee-tai (Ching-Ying Lam) refuses to be paid off – and defeats the boy with barely an exertion of effort (made more embarrassing because Leung is an effeminate asthmatic). Reduced to a crying, bruised, ridiculed weakling, Chang realizes that the only way to regain his dignity and properly defend himself is to acquire real kung fu training from a genuine master. But when Yee-tai refuses to tutor the novice, Chang’s father buys the entire troupe, forcing the director to take the nuisance on as an assistant.

“The Prodigal Son” features an abundance of comedy, never really taking any element of its martial arts premise seriously. The music, the dialogue, and the lighthearted shenanigans are all incredibly comical, augmented by brightly colored makeup, distorted faces, goofy sound effects, and flamboyant slapstick. There are even numerous setups for humorous misadventures, all completely unrelated to the expected asides for martial arts melees. One scene, for example, finds a troupe “actress” painting a clown face on an adversarial suitor – finishing the painted look long after their skirmish concludes. In another sequence, added for the sake of an extra duel as well as mirth, a one-armed combatant loses yet again, hilariously crawling away without the use of either upper appendage.

Despite the impressive kung fu techniques on display, the extremely over-the-top and cartoonish tone and styling of the film detracts from the amusement of the action. Most of the time, the fight choreography is a little too staged (and the high-pitched strike sounds and dubbing too obnoxious) to be exhilarating, though several sequences demonstrate a creative flair for the utilization of environmental props. As the film progresses, it mixes bone-crunching mayhem (at one point, a team of ninjas summarily slits the throats of nearly everyone in the opera company) with absolute absurdity (such as the “fatso godfather” instructor, played by director Sammo Hung, perfecting the art of calligraphy while brushing up on his dangling and flipping maneuvers). Later, the training montages prove to be both excessively comical and physically inspiring. By the end, “The Prodigal Son” resembles something along the lines of the Three Stooges if they participated in the martial arts genre – even if the finale packs a wallop.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10