The team & guests cover Shaw Brothers classics from Arrow Video’s Blu-ray box set!
Cinapse has always been, and will always be, about cinematic discovery and discussion. Our Shawscope Volume One: Round Table Reviews column is, therefore, a watch project allowing our team, and guests, to work our way through this phenomenal 12 film Blu-ray box set from Arrow Video. These capsule reviews from a variety of writers are designed to give quick glimpses of our thoughts on all of these films as we discover them for ourselves. Some of us are experts and some of us are new to the world of Shaw Brothers studio and kung fu cinema in general. All of us are excited for the adventure.
The Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studio cranked out a staggering number of feature films over its lifetime. With worldwide influence continuing to this very day, their contributions to cinema are myriad and undeniable. But with the vast output they generated, it can be hard for modern audiences to wade into their catalogue and find the diamonds in the rough. Fortunately, Arrow Video has curated their first Volume of 12 titles; a phenomenal way to wade into the deep waters of the Shaw Brothers. Beyond just capsule reviews, our team will also offer thoughts on the curation of the set and bonus features found within. Watch along with us, join us in the comments, or reach out to us on social media (linked below) if you’d like to submit your own contributions!
Despite a green tinting issue that continued to flicker throughout the Blu-ray transfer of Challenge Of The Masters (an unfortunate issue I haven’t experienced on any of the other discs in this set so far), this film quickly rose to one of my very favorites we have yet covered. I’m absolutely no expert in kung fu cinema but as an action movie fan for several decades now, I’m aware of the significance of folk hero Wong Fei Hung in Chinese cinema. From Jackie Chan to Jet Li to Stephen Chow, this character has been portrayed in literally hundreds of films dating back many decades. I happen to have seen the Once Upon A Time In China series (the entries starring Jet Li) within the past year, AND I saw Drunken Master and revisited Drunken Master II (which I consider to be the greatest martial arts film of all time) where Jackie Chan portrays the character. So it was a delight to see Gordon Liu playing the hero here in this, his first major film in the Shawscope set. While I adore kung fu cinema, it’s rare that I feel personally inspired by it. Yet that’s the kind of hero Wong Fei Hung is. Hung is a legendary folk hero because, while he’s highly malleable as a legendary individual, Hung almost always chooses the righteous path and overcomes adversity and challenges. Liu plays Hung as a young man, untrained in the martial arts, who finally gets his shot when his own father’s master takes him into the countryside for 2 years of intensive training. Much of the film is just his master’s lessons being ingrained into Hung, and into our own minds as well. “More forgiveness, less aggression” is his master’s mantra, and this plays out beautifully. I couldn’t help getting goosebumps as that classic Wong Fei Hung musical theme kicks in (apparently it’s known as “Under The General’s Orders”), and Hung begins to master the wooden man training as he syncs up with his master’s rhythm. Also at one point, his master (played by my new fave Chen Kuan Tai of Boxer From Shantung, aged up in tons of make-up here) also states “kung fu never ends”, something I’ve been thinking about for days now. “It do be like that tho”, as it were. Just as Wong Fei Hung is leaving town to train, a villain kills one of Hung’s friends. And so, once Hung levels up and returns home, a reckoning must occur. This villain is played by none other than the legend Lau Kar Leung, who directs Challenge of the Masters and who I know most from his prominent role in Drunken Master II (which he also directed). Leung would go on to collaborate with Liu often, most notably (to me) in 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Challenge Of The Masters hits all of my buttons. A young hothead applies patience and discipline to his training via a wizened master, then he heads back to town to clean up shop, and in the end he applies not just his muscle, but also his mind and heart, and brings about justice for the villain and unity among the warring factions of his hometown. It may not be the most original plotline, but it sure is a highly satisfying one. Challenge Of The Masters ranks right up there among the Once Upon A Time In China or Drunken Master films for me as a genuinely great Wong Fei Hung tale. — Ed Travis
Challenge of the Masters is an example of that grand kung fu tradition of films based on folk hero Wong Fei Hung, going back many decades and based on the real life martial arts practitioner. The film uses the old trope of a bullying rival kung fu school, but the novel framework of a sporting event, rather than a kung fu tournament or street brawl, gives it some unique character (I like the Jackie Chan movie Dragon Lord for the same reason).
Certainly one of the standout elements is a young Gordon Liu in an early starring role, a couple years before his career-defining role in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. He’s an enjoyable lead who gives his character both an earnest sense of boyish charm and an inquisitive intelligence.
After some of the heavier and more operatic and violent films we’ve been catching, Challenge is operating on lower stakes and doesn’t achieve quite the same highs as Boxer From Shantung or King Boxer, but is nonetheless a worthy treat for kung fu fans to enjoy. — Austin Vashaw
Challenge of the Masters has the distinction of not only being a deliberate origin story for martial arts folk hero Wong Fei-hung, but also of Gordon Liu: action movie leading man. Liu got his start on the supporting bench of Shaw Bros. films (he gets a memorable guest spot in Five Shaolin Masters), but this was his first big starring role – and you can absolutely see why he got called up to the pros in time to shake the pillars with 36th Chamber of Shaolin a couple years later. His Wong Fei-hung lands somewhere between Jackie Chan in Drunken Master and Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China, but has his own unique “well-meaning, but clumsy puppy” energy. It takes as much talent to look as hopeless as he does in Act 1 as he does talented by Act 3, and he has easy chemistry with stalwart studio players like Chen Kuan Tai and Lilly Li.
Of course, Masters director Lau Kar-leung (director of 36th Chamber, who also shines as the main heavy here) cements himself alongside Liu. There’s not much new ground being covered here (competing martial arts schools, violent competitions, ambitious-but-foolish apprentices, etc.), but what makes Challenge of the Masters such a delight is pure craft in execution. Ni Kuang’s script balances all the necessary elements of familial drama, zero-to-hero kung fu training, and scheming bandits & bullies from rival schools while Lau Kar-leung (who was also a longtime combat choreographer for the studio) shows a solid eye for the occasional flash of comedy and suspense as well as combat. It’s not as singular as King Boxer, but there’s a heart to Challenge that feels as much like inspirational sports movies like Miracle as it does to anything else – even while it dazzles with confidently thrilling flurries of fists and feet.
(And if you liked this, definitely seek out 1981’s Martial Club, the spiritual sequel – also directed by Lau Kar-leung with Gordon Liu returning as Fei-hung.) — Brendan Agnew
My lesser experience with Wong Fei-hung films (at least in comparison to Ed and Brendan) may lend itself to why I was less fascinated by this film than they seemingly were. Yet, when it comes to Shaw Brothers Kung-Fu there have been two tiers… stuff I like and stuff I love. So, even a lesser entry into the Shaw Kung-Fu catalog is a solid entry. This is where Challenge stands for me.
It still falls above films where the plot acts solely as a vessel to get from one action sequence to the next, as seems to be a pitfall of some of the films I’ve seen in the Shaw catalog, but it doesn’t rank up with my top Shaw selections. For me, the work of Chang Cheh, notably his Venom Mob films, are the ones that truly blow me away. I cannot pinpoint exactly what it is about these films that stand out most, thus I continue to explore and seek out the elements that elevate his Venom Mob films.
This is a higher end entry on that “stuff I like” tier and I’m certainly okay with that. There are several stellar action sequences and I really enjoy Gordon Liu whenever he’s on screen. Those factors alone make this one an enjoyable watch. My only disappointment here is that I expect this film may be forgettable for me and I may find myself lumping it into fun films I enjoyed but don’t really remember. I guess there are far worse things than a fun throwaway film, though. — Justin Harlan
And We’re Out.
Shawscope Volume 1 is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video