Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Prodigal Boxer (1972), starring Meng Fei, Pai Hong, Maggie Lee Lam Lam, Wong Ching and Yasuaki Kurata. Directed by Choi Yeung Ming.

(All images courtesy Warner Home Video, unless noted otherwise.)
ON the surface, The Prodigal Boxer (a.k.a. Kung Fu the Punch of Death) looks and sounds like a typical early '70s "old school" martial arts flick from HK (especially if you watch the version with the English dub, which I did). However, based on what little information is available online about the movie, there's more to it than being a mere 91-minute diversion. It's reported to be "a Shaw [Brothers] independent film" (which may be why there are more than a few Shaw regulars in front of the camera and behind the scenes), and because it depicts the story of the Chinese martial arts hero Fang Shih-yu, it's also linked to Shaw director Chang Cheh's "Shaolin Cycle" series of movies. Further, with a HK release in '72 (the exact date is unknown), it came out roughly over a year before Cheh began developing his first Shaolin feature (Five Shaolin Masters, the first of four Shaolin features to be filmed for '74, but the last to be issued), so circumstantial evidence suggests TPB might have inspired Cheh to undertake the Shaolin pictures. Did it? More on that later.

the crickets
When his cricket is triumphant in a fighting match, Fang Shih-yu (Meng Fei) winds up in a scrap with the sorehead owner of the losing insect. During the short skirmish, Shih-yu accidentally delivers to him a mortal blow, and he dies hours later. As it turns out, the dead man was the top student at a kung fu school run by Iron Fist Tan (Yasuaki Kurata) and his brother (Wong Ching), so the call for vengeance on Shih-yu (with whom they've had trouble previously) is swift. While he's out with friends, Tan and his sibling go searching for him at the Fang residence. Finding his mother (Pai Hong) and his father (Shut-Ma Wa Lung) there, the two thugs decide to go on the offensive anyway, but they succeed in slaying only the old man.

left to right: Meng Fei and Pai Hong
Upon returning, Shih-yu tries to ask his mother who killed his father, but she says nothing, knowing his kung fu is not strong enough for him to take on the brothers. Instead, she whisks him away into seclusion to work on his training, but when he soon finds out the brothers are responsible, he recklessly goes off after them. Of course, Shih-yu is in over his head, but lucky for him, he escapes certain death by the arrival of his mother and the authorities.

left to right: Maggie Lee Lam Lam and Meng Fei
Under the treatment of his mother and Siu Pin (Maggie Lee Lam Lam), a woman he befriended on the night of his father's murder, Shih-yu rebounds from his injuries and resumes his training. Even though his kung fu improves greatly, his mother insists he's not ready yet. He discovers this the hard way when a chance meeting with some of the brothers' students leads him right to the brothers themselves, followed by another round of combat where he's on the receiving end of a thorough beating. 

left to right: Yasuaki Kurata and Wong Ching
Again, Shih-yu goes back into recovery, and this time, in addition to even more training, he also gets the extra benefit of taking prolonged herb baths (lasting for several weeks) which make his skin nearly invulnerable. Once he's fully prepared to confront the brothers, he delivers to them a challenge to duel, which they accept. A last minute complication arises when Shih-yu's mother falls ill, and since he wants her well so she can see the fight, he's forced to endure a little more humiliation from the brothers in order to get the battle postponed for a few days. Fortunately, she gets better swiftly, and before too long, Shih-yu is facing down the scum who murdered his father for (hopefully) the last time....

Meng Fei
Did TPB specifically influence Cheh to create the "Shaolin Cycle?" Not likely; I think action director Lau Kar Leung, with his extensive knowledge of Shaolin martial arts, might be the one most responsible for that. I can imagine a scenario where he pitched the idea to Cheh, who then passed it along to Shaw Brothers, and Shaw, not completely sold on the concept, proposed a "test" film to gauge moviegoers' interest, which became TPB. However it actually got made, TPB was a catalyst in Cheh's undertaking of the Shaolin movies, and the connections it has with Shaw can't be disputed. If you're in doubt, consider how TPB director Choi Yeung Ming went on to co-direct Police Force with Cheh, and star Meng Fei was later cast in Cheh's Five Shaolin Masters. (As fate would have it, those were the only Shaws they worked on.)

left to right: Yasuaki Kurata and Meng Fei
On its own terms, TPB is okay as an "old school" martial arts movie. Ni Kuang's screenplay is straightforward with a linear plot that's not adorned but has sufficient characterization given to the good guys to make you root for them. Choi Yeung Ming's direction is workmanlike with some artistic flourishes and inspired placements of the camera in certain shots. Wong Pau Gei (who doubled as an assistant director) and Lau Kar Wing's fight choreography doesn't lack for energy or intensity, though some of its impact is dimmed by the film editing. The English soundtrack is a bit loud and harsh, but with familiar Shaw vocal actors on duty, it's tolerable. While most of the voices are (inevitably) ill-matched to the performers, the quality of the production is assured enough such quirks (including the translation) don't spoil the viewing experience. If you love "old school," you can't go wrong with TPB; just don't expect a "campy" affair.

How does it stack up to the movies of Cheh's "Shaolin Cycle?" Notably, the story is smaller in scale (focusing on Shih-yu before he entered the Shaolin Temple), the fights keep mostly to the ground and the extent to which women are featured goes contrary to the average Cheh Shaolin feature. To think that frequent Cheh collaborator Kuang wrote this is surprising, low key as it is, but back then, he probably saw it as a "one-shot" picture and wrote it as such, not knowing what lay ahead of him. (Eventually, he would write the majority of scripts for Cheh's Shaolin films.)

Continuing with the comparisons, Meng Fei's portrayal of Shih-yu contrasts greatly with that of Fu Sheng's memorable interpretation for Cheh. Part of this is due to the story, but some of it may relate to his acting experience. (It was his second film.) However, the fact Fei doesn't look and act "larger than life" like Sheng works well within the confines of the movie, making him an ideal choice for playing an underdog. (Not an easy observation to make with that ridiculous English voice he's given.)

Gratuitous picture of Maggie Lee Lam Lam.
As for the rest of the cast, standouts are Pai Hong as Shih-yu's mother, Maggie Lee Lam Lam (Mrs. David Chiang) as Shih-yu's girlfriend and Yasuaki Kurata as Tan, who manages to be menacing without overacting (unlike his "brother," Wong Ching). Within the supporting players, watch for Fung Hak On (in a rare "nice guy" role), Shut-Ma Wa Lung (as Shih-yu's father), Tung Choi Bo, Lau Kueng, Lo Wai, Yeun Cheung Yan and Danny Chow Yun Kin.

(Google images)
My copy of TPB comes from the 2006 Warner Martial Arts Double Feature DVD that combines it with Militant Eagle (1978), and it's also on Warner's 2007 two-disc 4 Film Favorites set, where TPB and ME are joined by  Moonlight Sword and Jade Lion (1977, with Angela Mao) and The Bloody Fists (1972, with Chen Kuan Tai). It's presented in non-anamorphic widescreen with a picture quality that ranges from very good to fair. As already mentioned, the sound on the English dub (the only language option) is noisy with a few moments where the dialogue is hard to decipher, but not enough that you can't keep up with the story. If you can't get your hands on an import version of TPB, the Warner DVD is better than nothing.

THE END
If you want to consider TPB as a companion piece to Cheh's "Shaolin Cycle" like Showdown at the Cotton Mill (1978) is, then alongside that later production, it's a minor offering. If Shih-yu's name was changed, and the bathing in herbs was cut out, the movie would become a routine "revenge" picture redeemed only by decent acting and good action scenes. Otherwise (whether you care anything about the film's history or not), while lacking the polish of better martial arts movies made around the same time, TPB is comparably entertaining and worth a look.

Brother Fang cuts to the chase: "This nearly-forgotten curio in the annals of films with Fang Shih-yu lacks the Shaolin Temple, but it's still fun for what it is. Any Meng Fei fan who doesn't have it yet needs to buy it. Everyone else should either rent or watch on YouTube."


Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S.-- Buy The Prodigal Boxer here.

2 comments:

  1. i love martial artist and my favorites r bruce lee,jet li,jim kelly,meng fei such a cutie,chaing and my man ti lung keep up the good work guys. cant forget my ladies mao,cynthia and omg cant think of the other two at the moment in crouching tiger. MARTIAL ART ROCKS

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  2. OMG I LOVE MENG FEI AND TI LUNG

    ReplyDelete