The Prodigal Son (Sammo Hung, 1981) — June 26, 2013
Lam Ching-ying is one of the great supporting actors of kung fu cinema, and this is a great showcase for both his acting and fighting. He plays an opera actor (specializing in female roles, as Lam himself did when he was a stage performer) who reluctantly takes Yuen Biao on as his pupil and teaches him the ways of Wing Chun. At one point Lam and Yuen even sing a duet on stage while fighting, literalizing the oft-remarked similarities between martial arts films and musicals. The first half ends in an inferno, the intensity of which leaves the second feeling more than a little deflationary, despite the presence of Sammo Hung. Sammo doesn’t get a whole lot to do, but his entrance is marked by the Wong Fei-hung theme and he does some acrobatic calligraphy, so it’s got that going for it.
There’s something stewing around here about authenticity, about two rich boys who think they’re great fighters that need to be educated about the real world by an actor, a professional faker who shaves his eyebrows and hides his asthma.
Added July 29, 2017:
Maybe Sammo’s most sophisticated plot, at least structurally with all the doubling (rich failsons, masters, villains, even more villainous bodyguards, etc), but mostly just an exceptional showcase for Lam Ching-ying, who by all accounts performs some of the best Wing Chun ever seen on film. A kind of response to Lau Kar-leung’s ideal of authenticity of martial art forms: where Lam’s kung fu is pure but incomplete, only Sammo’s improvisations upon it are able to fulfill its true purpose, which is explicitly and unabashedly deadly violence. No spiritual mumbo jumbo for Sammo the materialist: kung fu is not an art, it’s about poking the other guy in the eye then kicking him in the balls. But with style.
Carry On, Pickpocket (Sammo Hung, 1982) — July 27, 2017
Sammo plays the rounder part of a pickpocketing gang, with Frankie Chan as the thin part and veteran Lau Hak-suen as their elderly teacher. It opens with demonstrations of technique, Bresson all sped up, then settles down for a club sequence that ranks as one of Sammo’s best. He shyly flirts with Deanie Ip, he does Chaplin’s roll dance, he discos, he gets into a fight. Pure Sammo.
Then the plot kicks in: Deanie wants Sammo and Chan (character names: Rice Pot and Chimney) to steal diamonds from some bad guys. Bumbling along on their trail is cop Richard Ng. There are many fights, balanced well with the comic sequences, and then the final battle gets weirdly bloody.
Chan doesn’t have the star presence of Yuen Biao, who probably should have played this role, but he moves with a lithe grace that contrasts nicely with Sammo’s plump form. Sammo’s scenes with Ip are lovely, though there’s much unexplained about her character and their romance (she has a kid?). He won Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards, and his fine performance points ahead to his even better work with Mabel Cheung and Alex Law at the end of the decade.
Outlaw Brothers (Frankie Chan, 1990) - January 25, 2022
This is more what I’d expected to find in a Frankie Chan movie: a light action comedy with a bunch of fun and athletic action sequences and a goofy 80s Hong Kong tone, rather than the expressive brutality of the previous year’s Burning Ambition. Chan stars with Max Mok (who picked up Yuen Biao’s role as Leung Foon in the Once Upon a Time in China sequels) as a pair of car-thieving buddies who run afoul of Oshima Yukari’s cop Officer Tequila (two years before Chow Yun-fat played Officer Tequila in Hard-Boiled, I like to think they’re the same character). Chan woos Oshima (or is it the other way around?) and Mok woos a bargirl (the lovely Sharon Kwok, who is a lot of fun and should have been in more movies), then they all get mixed up with a gang of cocaine dealers led by Nishiwaki Michiko thanks to Chan’s sister’s awful race-car driver husband.
The fights are a lot of fun and the gags are above average. There’s a finale involving a lot of chickens and snakes, some fun car chases, and the meatiest role I’ve seen Oshima get yet. She gets to act and be charming and funny in addition to just being incredible in the action sequences.