Monday, March 22, 2004

Prodigal Son (Bai ga jai)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

Geez, didn't I just see Yeun Biao and Sammo Hung at the ass-kicking two weeks ago? Not that there's anything wrong with that; as part of the same group at the Chinese Opera that produced Jackie Chan, they can put some pretty groovy martial arts on-screen. Biao is, for that matter, perhaps the one of the trio with the most raw physical talent; where Jackie and Sammo make a lot of use of props and environments, Biao is the guy you want just standing in an open space trading blows with an opponent. He may not have the appearance or star quality of some other martial-arts stars, but the guy can move.

Fortunately, he gets ample opportunity to demonstrate that ability, although for most of the movie he's meant to look like a goof. He plays Leung Chang, a martial arts enthusiast who fancies himself a mighty street brawler, but whose father has paid his opponents to lose, when he tangles with a member of a traveling opera on behalf of some friends, upset that the leading lady turned out to be a man (Ching-Ying Lam), he gets his first taste of having his butt royally kicked. Despondant, he joins the opera in hopes of learning kung fu from this master. He will have no part of it, until they meet up with another dilletante who is far more skilled - and sinister.

The fighting is great. Sammo Hung directs, and he is a proud member of the "let people see what's going on" school of martial-arts choreography. If there's wire work in this 1981 movie, it's minimal. There's one big "that's got to be genuinely dangerous" scene in the middle, involving four people fighting amid a whole lot of fire.

The problem is that after that sequence, when the stakes become deadly, the movie falls back into a comedic path, introducing Sammo as another kung fu master who aids Chang's education. This last half is tedious, with too many drawn-out gags and lecturing on the different varieties of kung fu, and not enough punching and kicking. It leads up to a great final battle, but we in the audience had expected the movie to get serious to stay half an hour earlier.

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