I’ve been watching mostly Shaw Brothers films for the last couple of weeks, digging through some lesser-known stuff looking for the glint of gold. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything all that good: sure, there were nice sets and costumes in some, and some interesting comedic characters… but most of what I’ve seen recently has felt sloppy and empty for the most part, not developing characters I cared about and occasionally presenting slow, creaky action scenes that looked like pantomimes.
So, it was with some relief that I turned to Challenge of the Masters. This is Lau Kar-Leung’s second film as director, though by this time he was an old hand: he’d been doing action choreography for Shaws for a good ten years, and acting for some time before that. Every action sequence in this film snaps with the speed and grace that Lau is revered for, and it stars a number of A-list Shaws action stars, led by Lau Kar Fai (Gordon Liu) in his first leading role, Chen Kuan Tai and Lau Kar Wing. It’s also unusual in Lau’s work to find him acting in one of his own films and playing an evildoer, which he does with some relish in this one.
On to the story. Lau Kar Fai is Wong Fei Hung, traditional hero, practitioner of Hung fist and celebrated doctor: except, in this film, he’s only a lad, as yet untrained in martial arts and rather too headstrong for his own good. Like Jackie Chan’s portrayal of Wong Fei Hung in the Drunken Master films, he wanders around getting himself in trouble, much to his father’s dismay. His father, Wong Kai-ying (Chiang Yang) has refused so far to teach him martial arts, because of his temper — he worries that Fei Hung will get himself in trouble if he learns real kung fu.
Into this scenario steps Yuan Cheng (Lau Kar Wing), a policeman who’s been tracking a robber well-versed in several rather deadly northern styles of kung fu. (As an aside, the Hung Gar style practiced by Fei Hung’s school is a southern style.) Yuan Cheng takes a liking to Fei Hung, and prods his father to teach him. It takes some injuries caused by one of Fei Hung’s escapades to force matters, though, and Fei Hung is eventually taken in by Wing Kai Ying’s master, Luk Ah-choy (played by Chen Kuan Tai). Away the two of them go for two years, to train Fei Hung in Hung Gar kung fu.
Now, the plot’s probably nothing new to those who’ve seen a lot of kung fu films, particularly those produced by Shaw Brothers. It’s not for nothing that the Celestial documentary on kung fu movies (included on the DVD, it’s an excellent bonus) uses Challenge of the Masters to illustrate the traditional clichés of the genre. What’s special, though, is its execution: director Lau Kar Leung can trace his martial arts training back directly to Wong Fei Hung, as his father trained under one of Wong Fei Hung’s disciples. Thus, at least three members of the cast (Lau Kar Leung, Lau Kar Fai and Lau Kar Wing) are experts in this style and care about its history and traditions. This feeling of authenticity is emphasised by the way that Lau tells his story, so different to the bloodbaths produced by Shaws’ leading action director, Chang Cheh: the focus here is on family, respect for tradition and teachers and redemption rather than revenge. Training sequences look serious, without the breaking rocks with bare fists and other showy superhuman antics of Chang Cheh’s films. There’s a warmth to the characters and their relationships that really stands out, particularly between Wong Fei Hung and his master, once he begins his training.
The action sequences are, as you’d expect from this director and cast, crisp and well-executed. In particular, there’s some excellent pole work from Lau Kar Fai and Lau Kar Leung, and much of it is shot with quite long takes, so you can really see what’s going on. All three lead performances are excellent: Lau Kar Fai is great as the young, impetuous Wong Fei Hung; Chen Kuan Tai is gentle but demanding as the his master; and Lau Kar Leung is thoroughly villainous as the robber-in-hiding, sneaking around and looking suspicious. He even carries a bird in a cage and narrows his eyes at strangers a lot.
This film is required watching for fans of “classic” kung-fu films, made before the arrival of wire-fu. It’s also for people interested in the legend of Wong Fei Hung — there’s no director better suited to filming it.