[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
The last few weeks haven’t been the greatest for me. I’ve been struggling to find consistent work and with my friend having moved away after many years together, I’ve almost become lost. Things were bleak and I was considering scrapping the two columns this month to focus more on myself. When I was at my lowest, though, I decided to put on Challenge of the Masters to check out some of Wong Fei-Hung’s immaculate wisdom. I also wanted to use this as an excuse to cover more Gordon Liu films, especially since his real life has seen some tremendous highs and lows.
Challenge of the Masters marks the first film that Gordon Liu was the star of. Released just a few years before The 36th Chamber of Shaolin would cement him as a superstar, this early directorial effort from Lau Kar-Leung (Liu’s godbrother) was markedly different from the typical Shaw Brothers film of that era. While one person does die in the movie, this isn’t a film about vengeance or ultra-violence, or even aggression. The central theme is of understanding your opponent and working to help them in their darkest moment.
The film starts with two rival schools training for the upcoming pao tournament in their village (this film’s version of pao seems to be based on the Pao Xiuqiu that were used as a symbol of love -pao translating roughly to “toss” in Cantonese-). A young and undisciplined Wong Fei-Hung (Gordon Liu) wants to join in the festivities but doesn’t know enough about Kung Fu to be of any use. His father, the respected Wong Kei-Ying (Chiang Yang), sees his son as impatient and unworthy, yet the entire village disagrees.
One of the most important things to keep in mind about Challenge of the Masters is that this is possibly the earliest version of the more rambunctious and wilder Wong Fei-Hung that would become a staple in future adaptations. For nearly three decades at the time of this film’s release, actor Kwan Tak-Hing had played Hung in a variety of films that showcased the folk hero as stoic, brave, and unwavering in his dedication to Confucian philosophy. In comes Liu’s interpretation of the character and he acts like a whiny child in the beginning. It was a shocking change of character for Hong Kong audiences.
Getting back to the plot of the movie, Fei-Hung hatches a plan with one of his friends to secretly enter the Pao tournament against his father’s wishes. In doing so, he not only costs his team victory but winds up getting another student severely injured. His father is furious, but others simply wish Kei-Ying would see the fire burning within Fei-Hung.
While this is all going on, there’s a subplot with a constable named Yuan Ching (Lau Kar-Wing) searching for the ruthless criminal Ho Fu (Lau Kar-Leung). Yuan is a friend of Kei-Ying and his teacher, Lu Ah-Tsai (Chen Kuan Tai), and notices the passion that Fei-Hung exhibits for Kung Fu. After consulting with Fei-Hung, he makes a plan to trick Kei-Ying into letting Ah-Tsai teach the boy, which is where the majority of the film then takes place. Just as this happens, however, Yuan is killed by Ho Fu and Fei-Hung is none the wiser as he leaves for two years of training.
There’s a lot of setup and exposition in this film that does drag things down a bit, but the middle act is where Challenge of the Masters finds its stride. Lau Kar-Leung had worked for many years prior as an action choreographer on director Chang Cheh’s films (and even secretly directed Five Shaolin Masters while Cheh was off being uninvolved), so when the fights crop up in this film, they showcase a mastery of editing and camera angles that were well above Shaw Brothers’ usual fare. I won’t say this is the peak of Lau Kar-Leung’s talents as he had barely begun to shine, but the brawls are incredibly intricate for mid-70s Kung Fu.
What’s more intriguing is that there isn’t much in the way of actual battles here. With the majority of the film focusing on Fei-Hung’s training, you could actually call Challenge of the Masters a prototype for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and its countless imitators. As Fei-Hung struggles to master certain techniques, Ah-Tsai imparts Kung Fu philosophy onto him and it makes for an almost instructional take on learning the art of fighting. If Bruce Lee hadn’t passed away so suddenly and tragically, I really do think he would be making films just like this.
This might sound a bit boring, but what makes Challenge of the Masters work is the chemistry between Gordon Liu and Chen Kuan Tai. Somehow, I haven’t covered any Kuan Tai films for this column, but the man was Shaw Brothers’ first star that actually had a background in martial arts. He worked more in earlier Shaw films before branching off to do his own thing, but he was often cast in lead roles since he didn’t need to do much in the way of training. He would simply walk on set and be a badass the entire time. Being Lau Kar-Leung’s godbrother, Gordon Liu had formal training in Hung Gar fist, so seeing the two square off practically looks like a legitimate battle. They work wonderfully together and it’s a shame they didn’t star in more films with each other.
During Fei-Hung’s training, Ah-Tsai informs him of the fate of Yuan and his propels Fei-Hung to train harder. Over time, he learns to let go of his anger and to channel his rage into technique. Even his desire to get back home starts to fade a little as he begins to understand that he’s not an all-knowing, all-powerful prodigy. Through ruthless dedication, Fei-Hung becomes the man that Hong Kong audiences knew in this film, which makes for a climactic final battle with Ho Fu.
I say final battle, but the duel between Fei-Hung and Ho Fu doesn’t cap off the film. It marks the end of Fei-Hung’s character arc for this film, but it’s more of the conclusion to act two that leads into the final pao competition. Both Liu and Kar-Leung give it their all in one of their few on-screen appearances together. It’s a hell of a brawl where Fei-Hung nearly cripples Ho Fu, but then remembers the words of Ah-Tsai and helps his foe to his feet. Just outstanding stuff.
When the final pao competition rolls on, Challenge of the Masters is basically out of steam. I don’t dislike this part and even understand the importance of competition to Cantonese communities, but it kind of reminds me of Dragon Lord or Once Upon a Time in China III where character development and plot take a back seat to an elaborate set-piece that is just… kind of there? It at least ends with Fei-Hung releasing his grip on the rival school and allowing them to take the win, showing that while competition is good for the spirit, winning at all costs is not the way to build community. Liu staring down Fung Hak-On’s character is just this beautiful little bit of acceptance and calmness that perfectly encapsulates what Wong Fei-Hung’s mythos is all about.
That’s the kind of message I needed to see at this moment. Life sucks and we’re all just trying to make it through the best we can. While certain dastardly people may be walking around making things worse, extending a helping hand can be just the thing to bring them back to the light. We all have the capacity for good in us and Challenge of the Masters is a prime example of what seeing that good can lead to.
Many look at Kung Fu cinema as cheap entertainment with little to no substance beyond the brawls, but that isn’t really true. Certain films, absolutely, have nothing else going on in them, but most of these movies tell a story through the fights that defy traditional explanation. Challenge of the Masters is one such film, a movie that might have secondary plot threads and extraneous characters, but is ultimately about how martial arts can improve your body, mind, and soul. It’s an early highlight in the career of Lau Kar-Leung and Gordon Liu, two stars that would continue to improve as time went on.
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