The Prodigal Boxer (1974)
Director: Chai Yang-Min
Writers: Ni Kuang
Starring: Meng Fei, Li Lin-Lin and Yasuaki Kurata

The Plot: The Prodigal Boxer opens with our leading man, Fong Sai-yuk (played by Men Fei), playing a betting game between his friends and a few rough customers. He bets that his insect can beat theirs in a battle to the death, and before you know it Fong Sai-yuk’s insect is the only one left standing. This of course leads to a fight between the two groups, but unfortunately this small fight leaves a man dead. Fong doesn’t realize the severity of this man’s injuries, and leaves before anyone actually realizes that the man was killed during the brawl. This dead man seems to have belonged to a local martial arts school, which is in turn run by two deadly brothers. These two specialize in one technique each. One brother handles teaching the students punching techniques, and the other specializes in kicking. Together, they seem almost invincible, and this proves to be bad news for our protagonist. When the two brothers find out that Fong has killed one of their best students, they begin a search for the rebellious young teen. This leads them to Fong Sai-yuk’s home, where they run into his family. A huge battle ensues and Fong’s father is killed during the attack, and his mother is left beaten. When Fong Sai-yuk returns home, he discovers the consequences of his actions and looks to get revenge. His mother, however, refuses to tell him who committed this horrible crime, because she realizes that Fong is not capable of beating these two men. Not yet, at least. She intends to travel with him to the country side, and together they will train until he has the strength to beat these two monsters.

The Review
The Prodigal Boxer is a title that I didn’t even realize I was vaguely familiar with. In this Warner Brothers action pack, pictured above in the synopsis, there seemed to be four random films that were completely new to me as a viewer. However, after digging a bit while researching The Prodigal Boxer, I realized just how famous this movie is. Better known as Kung Fu: The Punch of Death, The Prodigal Boxer has floated in and out of my view several times in the past, but I had always avoided it for one reason or another. For starters, that secondary alias is quite awful to be honest. Kung Fu: The Punch of Death? Honestly, that sounds like a spinoff of David Carradine’s television show. As it turns out, putting this film off turned out to be a major mistake. A strong piece of cinematic history, The Prodigal Boxer is a really epic and powerful independent piece of kung fu history. Coming into fruition during a period where kung fu films were dominated by the larger film studios, such as the Shaw Bros. Studio and the growing Golden Harvest, The Prodigal Boxer manages to create a sprawling and dramatic piece of martial arts cinema, and it works incredibly well.

The first thing that should be discussed when talking about The Prodigal Boxer is obviously the technical merits of the film. There is no denying it, this movie looks very good. Although the Warner Brothers print may be slightly cleaner than many version of the movie that are floating around currently, the vast landscapes and excellent compositions should have looked amazing no matter what the format might have been. Similar to many lower budgeted Taiwanese productions, many of the scenes within this film are shot on-location, and the mountainesque scenery makes for a stunning visual landscape to set the film. The movie is shot well, no doubt, but it is also very cleverly edited. For the most part, the movie really seems to have a lot more going on behind-the-scenes than you might at first suspect. During the initial raid on Fong Sai-yuk’s home, I was really surprised to see some brilliant juxtapositions made with the editing. During this sequence, the film cuts between a fight sequence where the young Fong Sai-yuk is having a massive brawl with some uncoordinated loser, as well as the beating of his own parents. Even though Fong Sai-yuk, as it turns out, is doing a good deed by beating up a thief, the film ultimately does an excellent job in showing that the actions at Fong Sai-yuk’s home are happening because of his own inconsiderate use of force. The crux of the film seems to delve into familiar territory here, as we question the responsibility that comes with learning any martial art. The movie, during this sequence, takes shots of Fong Sai-yuk’s father being beaten, and eventually murdered, and juxtaposes this with the gleeful beating that Fong Sai-yuk dispenses on some local dimwit. Although Fong Sai-yuk is not evil, we get the idea that he thinks with his fists instead of using his head. When his fighting ways catch up to him, it is unfortunately those who are closest to him who have to pay the price.

Films like these are generally relegated as purely entertaining forms of cinema, without a lot of brains behind their actions. For the most part, some of these criticisms are true. However, there are filmmakers who do manage to understand the lyricism of film and try to use that to their advantage in crafting a very strong piece of action cinema. I get the feeling that our filmmaker today is very much one who stands in that category. The character depth given in this film far exceeds what is expected from the genre, and although it remains a pure action film, there’s a certain amount of realism to the picture that I enjoy. Death, for example, is treated in a very realistic fashion in the opening of the film. In these movies, so often bodies seem to pile up without any of the emotional turmoil that normally comes with death. Fong Sai-yuk kills a man in our opening, but he doesn’t even realize it because he doesn’t consider the long term effects of his own actions. Then, when his father dies, we get to see the sense of loss that his character truly has. In a very strong scene, we see Fong Sai-yuk go through a series of emotional ups and downs when first confronted with his father’s passing. Young actor Meng Fei does a splendid job with the role, and during these tough scenes he steps up to the plate with an admirable sense of conviction. The film gives face to the remorse and impact that death fills us with, and although the movie does not become melodramatic, this is far greater drama than one expects from a run-of-the-mill kung fu romp.

Although Warner Brothers do a fine job in presenting this film, the original dub may use some pronunciations that might leave modern audiences from catching a few important historical references. Although Men Fei’s character is continually referred to as Su Yee throughout the film, the character that he actually portrays is the Chinese folk hero Fong Sai-yuk. That’s right, the same Fong Sai-yuk from the series known as The Legend I and II, both starring Jet Li. The real man, Fong Sai-yuk, is a bit of a mystery, as his legends have seemingly overshadowed his actual story, but he was a legendary practitioner of Tai-Chi. He was also the youngest warrior within his clan during the Qing dynasty, which seems to be a fact that has been kept through most of his film incarnations. The seemingly open-book that could be written about the character has certainly given free-reign to filmmakers who want to publicize their own distinct Chinese heroes, and Prodigal Boxer definitely does just that. This is certainly one of the most unique portrayals of Fong Sai-yuk that I have seen so far, as it tends to stay grounded within reality instead of going as over-the-top as the original myths were. After all, Fong Sai-yuk supposedly had all of his limbs broken when he was born, in order for his mother to repair them with her magical herb baths. These herb baths supposedly gave him invincibility as he grew older!

The Conclusion
Although it is hard to say that this is a classic that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Five Deadly Venoms or The 36 Chambers of Shaolin, it is a very solid effort from the period and holds a great deal of historical importance. I would certainly recommend it to viewers who love the genre, and I might even recommend it for those who have had trouble taking these films serious before. A solid feature, and certainly worth tracking down. I give it a solid four out of five stars.