|Sammo Hung is rightly considered a legend in the Hong Kong martial arts movie industry, and since that has somewhat fallen by the wayside in its international standing, it is worth going back to the films he directed and often starred in as superb examples of what the form can do. Considering Hollywood, among other places, eventually took its cue from the Hong Kong action flick to apply those fighting styles to the mainstream, they owe filmmakers like Sammo a debt of great thanks, but even so, no matter how many John Wick instalments you watch, there's something golden about watching where it all hailed from.
Eureka have released two of Sammo's movies from his golden age (and from Golden Harvest - that's a lot of gold) on Blu-ray in a double bill: Warriors Two and The Prodigal Son, two connected stories as the latter was a prequel to the former. For Warriors Two, it was a chance for Sammo as director and star to devote a plot to the Wing Chun kung fu technique, which he considered more distinctive, cinematically, than some of the other styles that were focused on in other directors' output. The result arrived in 1978, as many have pointed out a watershed year for Hong Kong movies as its hits guided the path the industry would travel for some time to come.
That plot took a genuine historical figure, the Wing Chun expert Leung Tsang (or Mr Tsang, as he is called here) and placed him in a series of scenes that adhered to the traditions of the genre - training sequences, big boss man to battle for the finale, and so on - while scrubbing them up to make them emerge shiny and new. There is a conspiracy against Mr Tsang to usurp his place in the local power dynamic and install the villains instead, which naturally involves beating him and his allies to within an inch of their lives, or further if necessary, and Sammo (as the imaginatively named Fatty, once again - couldn't they call him Rotundo or Mr Big-Boned for a change?) is recruited into Tsang's fold.
Also there is the cashier who uncovered the evildoers' scheme, Hua (Casanova Wong), and it is he who is trained in those generous schooling sequences, though for depth they have nothing on another 1978 favourite, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Nevertheless, as Hua gets knocked over by wooden men (how do they operate, then?) and sends olive pips flying, it's all a build-up to the grand finale, one of the greatest of its kind ever filmed. OK, maybe the goofy comedy doesn't do anything for you, maybe you were restless during the training, but take a look at the athleticism and ingenuity deployed in that last act, which demonstrated some truly incredible moves at absolutely relentless quality, throwing in the physically impossible but always seeming grounded in reality, somehow. All at a speed that many modern action movies would struggle to emulate.
While Warriors Two was a big success for the budding director, he famously resisted repeating himself too often, preferring to innovate time and again within the parameters of a martial arts movie, from pushing the comedy angle to creating ever more remarkable stunts and moves for his more than able cast to perform. This had been drummed into Sammo from an early age, and his formative years learning in the Peking Opera alongside Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, who he would go on to work with on film, and entertain no small rivalry with. But his 1981 effort The Prodigal Son was the one where he most blatantly harked back to his teachings as a young boy.
That was down to its focus on an acting troupe, at least until the last act, where the young Mister Tsang, now Master Tsang, is a tyro Wing Chun proponent who doesn't realise his rich father has bought off the staff of his school to make him think he is a great martial artist. Of course, Yuen Biao, who played him, really was a great martial artist, and the film does not quite conceal the incredible physicality of the star even when he is meant to be being beaten up humiliatingly. However, this comes in a lot handier when he is taught Wing Chun by the lead actor of the troupe, who essays the female roles: he was played by Lam Ching-Ying, also at the Opera School with Sammo, and just as adept; interestingly, he is one of the most badass gay characters in action cinema.
Don't go thinking this was entirely progressive, but for Hong Kong in 1981 this was a strong gay role and one who is treated with respect since he knows the finer points of kung fu. His Achilles' Heel is his asthma, which strikes at inopportune times, but as he reluctantly comes around to coaching Tsang (as we knew he would) he is able to pass on his reserves of strength to his pupil. The Chinese opera material was plainly something the director was enjoying evoking, perhaps through nostalgia, perhaps pride, though when he showed up as an actor in the final half hour, playing, go on, guess. Yes, Fatty. Anyway, when he showed up the comedic tone grew noticeably coarser as future mini-mogul Wong Jing was on writing duties, a man who made a virtue of bad taste jokes, but even here there were scenes of great inspiration. Overall, both Warriors Two and The Prodigal Son illustrate how Sammo Hung was evolving in this pivotal stage of his career, and arguably he never looked back.
[Eureka release both these films on a two-disc Blu-ray set with all these features:
O-Card Slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling | Reversible poster featuring original Hong Kong artwork | PLUS: A 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) | 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 | Alternate English credits | Stills galleries including rare production stills, artwork, and ephemera | Trailers.]