Review: Challenge of the Masters (1976)

Starring Gordon Liu, Chen Kuan Tai, Liu-Chia Liang, Fung Hak-On, Lily Li, Lui Chia Yung, Yuen Biao, John Cheung

Fight Choreography by Liu-Chia Liang

Directed by: Liu-Chia Liang

There have been many, many, many interpretations of folk hero Wong Fei-Hung over the last several decades, with Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and especially Kwan Tak-Hing (he played the character in over 80 films!) and it is here that Liu Chia-Liang would get to unleash his fight choreography with the Greatness, Gordon Liu, for what would be the first of several times his name would be associated with Wong Fei Hung (Liu Chia-Liang also directed most of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master 2 before he left due to creative differences)

Gordon Liu jumps into the immature teenage Wong Fei Hung, whom in this version doesn’t know Kung Fu despite being the son of famous master Wong Kei-Ying, who refuses to teach his own son as he finds him too immature, and learning kung-fu would only get him into trouble (or really, just plain kill someone). But soon Wong will go to his father’s master, Master Lu (Tai-Chen) who decides to teach Fei-Hung, and maybe, just maybe get him to grow up a little, much to his father’s delight. But things take a dark turn as wanted criminal Chen Ah-Fu (Lui Chia Liang), hiding in a martial arts school, kills a local kung fu master Yuen Chiang, who has been tracking him down. Unfortunately for Chen, Yuen was a friend of Wong Fei Hung and his father. Of course vengeance must come…if he can learn kung fu quickly enough!

Lui Chia Liang made a kung fu film that had something to say about the nature of Kung Fu not only teaching one how to fight, but also how to change one’s heart. The film isn’t as action packed as many in the genre, but is still a worthy addition to the annals of kung fu films. Gordon Liu does an amazing job of transitioning from an immature, entitled kid to compassionate Kung-Fu master by film’s end, and while Liu Chia-Liang’s part is small than it appears to be, he plays a worthy rascal of a villain, but not an invincible one. Chen Kuan Tai is a standout as the kung fu master who seems to fear getting old and “losing a step” and isn’t afraid to go shirts-off-in-the-rain to prove he’s still a badass!

Fung Hak-On and John Cheung play their characters in exactly the slimy way you’d imagine, and both are uniformly great. You just can’t wait to see both of them eat a Gordon Liu fist before the film ends, and Cheung certainly gets his (he gets a testicle shot for the ages), but I didn’t foresee the ending both men would get, and it was a pleasant surprise to see the true teachings Wong Fei Hung learned hit home.

As is the case with many Shaw Brothers films, one of the highlights are the training sequences, finding Gordon learning how to use the staff all the way to understanding the uses of Crane and Tiger styles of Kung Fu, and it’s as great as you’d hope it would be. It must be said, trying to ambush your master daily in order to learn Kung Fu is just not…look, getting your ass kicked daily this way is just not a plan!

The “final fight” can be looked at as a little anti-climactic, but the battle between Wong Fei Hung and Ah Fu is an interesting one. Ah Fu, being the villain, finds himself quickly being overmatched by Fei-Hung, and tries to take the fight to other terrain when he can regain his advantage, but never does. The pole fighting is full of exciting fight choreography, and if you watch Liu Chia-Liang’s films you knew it was gonna be awesome, and it is! The New Year brawl looks like an exciting version of Kung Fu Rugby, and some announcer commentary would have been so fun to have, but alas it wasn’t meant to be. The rules are sketchy though, while no weapons are allowed, folks find a way to bring them in and use them without the judges finding out, which means they must be either blind or in dire need of glasses.

Kiai-Kick’s Grade: 8.5

Another thrilling tale of Wong Fei-Hung with Gordon Liu leaping into the role as only Gordon can, and Liu Chia-Liang not only shows the ferocity of Kung-Fu, but also the way that compassion and kindness can change one’s heart. After a few kicks to face!