In a discussion of the influential trends in early post-second world war Cantonese cinema, it would be hard to come up with a better example than The Prodigal Son.
On the surface, this 1952 work is a conventional all-star mainstream comedy-drama which follows the familiar plot line of a wastrel eventually getting his comeuppance. But in the hands of director-writer Ng Wui, the humour and pathos are underlined with progressive themes so skilfully presented as non-didactic entertainment, that the film manages to impress six decades later.
The inaugural production of Sun Luen, a left-wing studio unofficially under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party, the movie's scenario contained nothing that could be construed as pro-Communist China propaganda. In relating the tale of Yuen Sai-cheung (Cheung Ying), a spoiled young man convinced that his long absent father (Lo Dun) has made a fortune in America, Ng created an ostensibly apolitical, local work that was totally in tune with the realities experienced by its contemporary audience.
Families like the Yuens, separated by distance and war after the chief breadwinner's overseas migration, were a common feature of communities along the southern Chinese coast, including in Hong Kong. So, too, were progeny like Sai-cheung, spoiled by his mother (Wong Man-lei) and chauvinistic in his treatment of a long-suffering spouse (Pak Yin).
The attractions of life in the fast lane with a new girl (Yung Siu-yi) prove irresistible to Sai-cheung, and the predictability of his downfall is mitigated by the nuanced presentation of his eventual redemption in the wake of a reunion with his returned father, and now-independent wife. The catalyst is a laundry, that most maligned of Chinese-American stereotypes, here used as a symbol of hope for the future.
Ng takes a plethora of potentially formulaic personalities and situations and transforms them into an entity far above clichés. The cast, which comprises some of the top names in Cantonese pictures, is more than up to the task.
Ng's combination of vivid dialogue and, at times, a neo-realistic technique, is a significant factor in the film's originality, and this brings an enlightened spirit to the proceedings. Ng took the camera outside to real locations more than was usual at the time, and the film culminates in a lengthy, wordless montage that made for one of the most uplifting finales of that year.
Hong Kong cinema was then in the midst of a golden age. Prosperous Southeast Asian ethnic Chinese communities had an insatiable thirst for imports from "the old country," and there was little competition from cinematic rival Shanghai, where filmmaking had entered a state of paralysis in the wake of Mao Zedong's launched rectification movement in arts and literature.
Over 220 Hong Kong features premiered in 1952, but few enjoy the reputation and influence of The Prodigal Son.
Leading man, Cheung Ying, has named it the favourite of the 400 credited works in which he has appeared.
The Prodigal Son, September 8, 2pm, Broadway Cinematheque, September 14, 4pm, Cine-Art House. Part of the 100 Must-See Hong Kong Movies programme