Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Review: Challenge of the Masters (1976)

"Challenge of the Masters" is the story of young Wong Fei-Hung (Gordon Liu, in his first starring role). Wong Fei-Hung is a brash young man who wants nothing more than to learn kung fu. His father, Wong Chi-Ying, runs a kung fu school but will not train Wong Fei-Hung because he feels his son is too hasty and not yet mature enough. Of course this makes Wong Fei-Hung angry, as he feels he's ready and able. He spends his time practicing his own shoddy kung fu in his father's courtyard, which embarrasses him.

Officer Yuan Ching (Lau Kar-Wing) comes into town seeking to arrest Ho Fu (Lau Kar-Leung), a wanted killer. Ho Fu has been holed up at the rival school of Master Pang, although they are unaware that he is a killer. Yuan Ching arrives at the school of Master Lu Ah Tsai (Chen Kwan-Tai) and sees Wong Fei-Hung outside, mistaking him as a student, which of course annoys him and he runs off to town. All the while, the killer Ho Fu has been trailing Officer Yuan to see what he's up to. As Yuan Ching enters Master Lu's school, Ho Fu follows Wong Fei-Hung to town. While this is going on, Officer Yuan asks if Master Lu has any info on Ho Fu, and also mentions that he saw a lot of potential in the young man he saw out front (Wong Fei-Hung). In town, Ho Fu confronts Wong Fei-Hung and asks him why Officer Yuan was talking to him. Wong Fei-Hung, still agitated, tells him to go to hell, and Ho Fu tries to beat it out of him. The fight is broken up by the townspeople, Ho Fu heads off, and Wong Fei-Hung returns home more determined than ever to teach himself kung fu!

Now at the school of Wong Chi-Ying, Officer Yuan meets Wong Fei-Hung's father (who had the same master, Lu Ah Tsai) to catch up on old times. During this time he sees Wong Fei-Hung wildly swinging around and knocking things over, as some form of training, and asks his father who he is. Wong Chi-Ying, embarrassed, explains that it is his son. Officer Yuan again mentions the potential he sees in Wong Fei-Hung, surprising his father!

Next up is the yearly Pao Competition, where all the local schools compete to see who is the best. Wong Fei-Hung sneaks into the competition, and is partly responsible for his father's school losing to Master Pang's school. By the way, Ho Fu has been training Master Pang's students to use uncouth tactics to win the event! Wong Fei-Hung, angry because of the loss, finally has had enough, and goes to Lu Ah Tsai's school where he runs into Officer Yuan. Yuan takes him inside and convinces Master Lu to train him! "That's good! Father and son, both learning from the same teacher! That should make history!" says Officer Yuan. Wong Fei-Hung also tells Officer Yuan about his run in with Ho Fu. Yuan then goes after Ho Fu and they duel it out in the forest. Ho Fu wins the duel, killing Officer Yuan with his Death Kick technique.

Master Lu and Wong Fei-Hung are now isolated out on the countryside, beginning training. Three months pass before Master Lu informs Wong Fei-Hung that Officer Yuan has been killed. Wong Fei-Hung, saddened at the death of his friend, vows revenge and kicks his training into overdrive! Wong Fei-Hung trains with Master Lu for over 2 years and becomes proficient in kung fu and the use of the Shaolin Long Pole weapon. He is also taught the importance of discipline, forgiveness, humility, and kindness...

Wong Fei-Hung then returns to town to seek out Ho Fu. They meet in the same bamboo grove where Ho Fu previously defeated Officer Yuan. This time Wong Fei-Hung is the victor, but instead of killing Ho Fu, he remembers Master Lu's teachings of forgiveness, and spares his life, but does get him sent to jail.

There is also another Pao Competition coming up, and this time Master Pang instructs his students to illegally use hidden iron bars as weapons to gain the upper hand in the Competition. The day of the Competition comes, and Master Pang's school is cheating to win. Wong Fei-Hung has the competition won, but shows mercy on one of Pang's students, displaying the kindness and discipline taught to him by Lu Ah Tsai. The rest of the competitors take hold of the lesson shown by Wong Fei-Hung, and call a truce, making the Pao Competition a draw, and they all celebrate together. The next day, Master Pang and his students meet Wong Chi-Ying and his students at Chi-Ying's school. Master Pang shows humility and admits that he instructed his students to break the rules of the Pao Competition. Pang decides he must punish himself, but just as he's about to strike himself with one of the illegal iron bars, Wong Fei-Hung jumps in and stops him, FREEZE FRAME, THE END!

This movie falls into the category I like to call the "Classic Kung Fu Story." It's not chock full of violence, blood, and action, but what fights it does have are quality. The stand out fights are Officer Yuan vs. Ho Fu (great sword vs. spear & hand to hand) and then Wong Fei-Hung vs. Ho Fu (Pole vs. spear). The training sequences with Lu Ah Tsai and Wong Fei-Hung are excellent. While getting revenge is part of the story, the main point of this movie is the moral of having discipline, forgiveness, and humility. It is summed up best by these lines, spoken by Master Lu Ah Tsai: "Forgive and forebear, Wong Fei-Hung, never forget... humility and kindness." and "When you fight and beat your opponent, you've only won a physical match. But then, if you can show kindness, that man may surrender his heart to you. Wong Fei-Hung, don't you ever forget that." So, if you're looking for a great old school "Classic Kung Fu Story," look no further than "Challenge of the Masters."


4 out of 5 Venoms

"Challenge of the Masters" Trailer

"Buddha's name be praised..."


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