Prodigal Son/Encounter of the Spooky Kind
The casting call must have looked something like this: "Extremely ugly actors needed for kung fu film. Bulbous noses and large facial moles a plus." You've never seen a homelier bunch of characters as in Sammo Hung's wonderfully shaggy 1981 Prodigal Son, including Hung himself as a fat, cranky martial-arts master with a chubby daughter named Twiggy. Hung (along with his pal Jackie Chan) was reinvigorating the moribund kung fu genre in the late '70s as both a performer and director, and Prodigal Son is considered among aficionados to be among the best of its kind. Yuen Biao plays Leung, who thinks he's the village champion fighter, until he finds out that his father has been paying his opponents to lose. Humiliated, and now the target of all the guys who lost to him, he needs to learn how to really fight, and fast. He apprentices to a Peking Opera performer, a man who specializes in playing women onstage -- in fact, we first see him, dressed as a woman, beating the bejesus out of some very confused guys who thought he was a she.
Hung's early films have the earthy feel of Chinese folklore, bawdy tales told around a campfire after too much rice wine. On the bill as well is Encounter of the Spooky Kind (also 1981), perhaps his earthiest. Hung didn't invent the Hong Kong supernatural movie, but he can be credited with reinventing it with Encounter, mixing up kung fu, B-movie horror, and Three Stooges-esque poke-in-the-eye slapstick. Hung plays the village chump, the only person in town unaware that his wife is having an affair with a local bigwig, Master Tam. Tam hires a greedy magician to call up a few zombies to kill Cheung. The assassin's magician brother objects to this evil use of his skills, and so a battle of the magicians begins, using spells, talismans, voodoo, and, of course, kung fu, with Cheung caught in the middle. It's full of rowdy humor, surprisingly creepy scares, and some uproariously inventive action. One of the '80s' great unsung directors, Hung's been away from the director's chair for a few years. He's just recently made a distressingly lame comeback, directing his old friend Jackie Chan in the truly awful Mr. Nice Guy. Skip that one, and check these out instead.
Prodigal Son screens Thursday, April 2, at 2:50 and 7:05 p.m. (with Encounter of the Spooky Kind at 5 and 9:15 p.m.) at the UC Theater, 2036 University (at Shattuck) in Berkeley. Tickets are $6.50; call (510) 843-3456.