Director: Lau Kar-Leung
Notable Cast: Gordon Liu, Chen Kuan-Tai, Chiang Yang, Lau Kar-Leung, Lily Li Li-Li, Lau Kar-Wing, Ricky Hui, Chiang Tao, Wong Yu, Fung Hak-On, Wilsong Tong, Shih Chung-Tien, Cheng Kang-Yeh
Being a kung fu cinema fan often means that I have to explain why I thoroughly enjoy the genre to many people unaware of its merits. Just the other day, an associate of mine stated, ‘How can you watch so many of those? Isn’t it all just people fighting?’ Sure, that is a certain element to the films and for those who don’t understand how modern action cinema and blockbusters owe large portions of their cinematic DNA to kung fu films from Hong Kong of this era, it can feel like it's just a bunch of folks punching and kicking one another.
Like any other genre, there is a spectrum of quality to their merits. In the case of so many of Lau Kar-Leung’s films, there is a dedicated sense of soulfulness and layered meaning between the characters and their relationship to martial arts. Although 36th Chamber of Shaolin may be his most famous film to explore this relationship and topic, Challenge of the Masters is damn near as effective in exploring its characters, a sense of justice, and how martial arts bridges the two.
As so many kung fu films of this ilk start, Challenge of the Masters starts with two rival martial arts schools, one that attempts to be stalwarts of justice and honor while the other looks to be the best at any cost - even if it compromises rules or ethics. It’s through this trope that the film is able to balance its themes about rights and wrongs, just and unjust, by instilling both sides into its lead character, the folk hero of so many kung fu movies - Wong Fei Hung.
It’s through the performance of Gordon Liu as the lead character, a brattish and relatively immature son to the master of the “good school,” that carries so much weight in the film. Liu, as he often was in his Shaw Brothers films, is an impeccable force on screen, delivering on the character arc with impressive finesse. His relationship with his fellow classmates and his father set the stage, but it’s his dynamic chemistry with his teacher, Lu Ah Tsai played with bravado through wig and fake mustache by Chen Kuan-Tai, that exemplifies the characterization and themes of the film.
With a substantial set of training montages in the second act and a subplot featuring a villainous assassin, played with flair by director Lau Kar-Leung, that our hero is intent on bringing to justice, Challenge of the Masters is not short on action for a film so focused on theme and character. The realistic martial arts and performances by the actors and stunt team, highlight why Lau Kar-Leung was such a cornerstone of the martial arts genre as a director and choreographer. Even though the big one-on-one battle, between the previously mentioned assassin and Wong Fei Hung, does not anchor the film - that’s saved for a more ethical-themed moment in a local competition that turns relatively dangerous, there’s enough kung fu combat to keep any fan satiated.
Yes, Challenge of the Masters is filled with plenty of cinematic kung fu action, but it’s a film that inherently adds a large beating heart to the subsequent battles. It’s a film where each fight is so dedicated to the humanity below that stripping it down and saying that it’s just a bunch of people fighting is a massive disservice. Challenge of the Masters is effective character storytelling at its genre finest and it remains one of Lau Kar-Leung’s best in a career filled with iconic films.
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