How Sammo Hung Mixed Crude Comedy and Authentic Martial Arts
Mixing comedy and kung fu – humour and violence – could be considered a strange idea, and some kung fu comedies work better than others.
The two films which popularised the genre, Snake in The Eagle’s Shadow (1978) and Drunken Master (1978), poked gentle fun at the kung fu itself and were amusing as a result.
Others, like The Prodigal Son (1979) and The Magnificent Butcher (1981) – the former directed by Sammo Hung Kam Bo, the latter featuring Hung as an actor – simply intersperse full-on combat scenes with corny humour, and the jokes often detract from the action.
Still, Hong Kong cinema is all about exploiting trends, and the kung fu comedy genre’s box-office appeal in the late 1970s and early 1980s was so strong that the inclusion of some jokey scenes almost became de rigueur, especially for Hung.
“The juxtaposition of comedy and action is a trademark of Sammo Hung’s period films,” says Frank Djeng, who contributed the narration to Eureka Entertainment’s Blu-ray release of The Prodigal Son.
“Hung wanted to make sure that audiences from both ends of the spectrum – those who went to see his films for the comedy, and those who went to see them for the action – would be satisfied. He wanted to cover a wide demographic to ensure box-office success,” Djeng says.
The Prodigal Son
The Prodigal Son, which stars Yuen Biao and Lam Ching Ying, and features Hung in an extended cameo role, is much loved for its action but less praised for its clumsy humour. The film focuses on the wing chun form of kung fu, and the lead characters riff on real-life wing chun masters Leung Jan, Leung Yee Tai and Wong Wa Po.
The storyline features Yuen as Leung Jan, who is portrayed as a martial artist who’s led to believe he’s more skilful than he is. When Leung discovers the truth about himself, he trains with Beijing Opera star Leung Yee Tai (Lam) and martial arts teacher Wong Wa Po (Hung) to become an expert in wing chun.
The combat scenes, which feature authentic wing chun, are memorable, as is a long training sequence in which Hung trains Yuen.
The film is notable because it puts Lam Ching Ying and Yuen Biao in starring roles. Lam, who later found fame in the Mr Vampire series, was considered a supporting talent, and Yuen, who was intended for stardom, was ultimately given few opportunities to shine as a leading man. The Prodigal Son shows both of them at their best.
“Both Lam and [Yuen] gave their finest acting performances in The Prodigal Son,” says Djeng. “It shows that [the] star factor was not a big influence on Hung when he cast his films, as Yuen and Lam were not at the same level of stardom as Jackie Chan or Hung himself in the early 1980s.”
“Yuen really outshone himself as Leung Jan, and appeared in almost every scene of this long – 100-plus minutes – film, switching effortlessly between comedy and drama, and demonstrating his acrobatic agility,” Djeng says.
The film’s focus on wing chun came from Hung, who had long been interested in the style. Wing chun is a close fighting style that uses fast strikes. Although the style had made appearances in Hong Kong films, and was also a major component of Bruce Lee’s jeet kune do, it had rarely been depicted authentically until Hung’s Warriors Two (1978).
The Prodigal Son continues that, featuring great demonstrations of the style in the fights with Lam and Yuen and an expert guide to its techniques in the lessons given by Hung.
“The Prodigal Son is one of the most authentic wing chun films ever made,” says Djeng, who has trained in the style. “When Hung made Warriors Two, he tried to make the wing chun as authentic as possible, and hired a real wing chun master to be a consultant. But due to time constraints, Hung was only able to have a few weeks’ guidance from the sifu. He felt there was more he could say about wing chun, and The Prodigal Son was the result.”
The Magnificent Butcher
The Magnificent Butcher , directed by Yuen Woo Ping, features Hung as Lam Sai Wing, a butcher who was also a student of the legendary Wong Fei Hung.
The plot is messy, revolving around a murderer portrayed by Fung Hak On, and the brutality and the comedy are an unsatisfactory mix. But the martial arts scenes are superlative, and combine Hung’s down-to-earth choreography with Yuen’s acrobatic northern-style approach to martial arts.
The big draw of The Magnificent Butcher was the big-screen return of Kwan Tak Hing, who had portrayed Wong Fei Hong in at least 70 films since 1949. Kwan had not appeared in a film as Wong for five years, but had portrayed the hero in 13 episodes of a TVB television series in 1976.
“That was Kwan’s first time playing Wong on the small screen, and he did his own stunts. His over-the-top, theatre-like performance, together with the choreography by [Yuen Woo Ping’s father] Simon Yuen Siu Tin, made the television series very popular,” says Djeng.
“So having Kwan play Wong Fei Hung in The Magnificent Butcher was a logical choice.”
One of the film’s highlights is its depiction of Wong Fei Hung’s skill at calligraphy, which combined movements used for drawing with those of kung fu. “Timing and creativity are the best things about the calligraphy battle, although there are too many shots of Kwan being doubled by a stuntman,” says Djeng, who notes that the other fights in the film “represent old-school kung fu at its very best”.
The Beggar So character was supposed to be played by Simon Yuen, who had portrayed him in Snake in The Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. But he died of a heart attack during filming. “It was believed that Simon Yuen’s absence was one of the reasons the film didn’t do so well at the box office, compared to Yuen Woo Ping’s earlier successes,” says Djeng.
In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved genre. Read our comprehensive explainer here.
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