Originally released back in 1980, “The Challenger” marked the directorial debut of Eric Tsang. Although now better known for his motor-mouth personality and for playing triad bosses, the prolific actor is actually also an accomplished director, having started his career as a stuntman in kung fu fare such as this. Produced by Lo Wei, the film features a top-notch genre cast including legendary Shaw Brothers stars David Chiang and Lily Lee, along with the likes of Norman Chu and Philip Ko.
The film begins with mysterious fighter Kam Ching Hung (genre veteran Norman Chu, also in the likes of “Abbot of Shaolin” and “Zu Warriors”) turning up at several martial arts schools and challenging their leaders to duels, apparently with no discernable motive. One day, he is spotted by the greedy Yau (David Chiang, “Vengeance”) as he leaves a bank with a large sum of money, leading to a restaurant brawl. This in turn is witnessed by Wai (lily Lee, best known for “The Wandering Swordsman”, in which she starred with Chiang), who reports it to her lover Pau (Philip Ko, also in the Shaw Brothers horrors “Seeding of a Ghost” and Boxer’s Omen”). He seems to have an idea who Kam might be, and pays Yau to put him out of the picture. Unfortunately, this backfires when the two join forces and turn their attentions to his nefarious dealings.
Where “The Challenger” really succeeds is in its great collection of characters, which are quite different to those who usually populate martial arts films of the time. Yau in particular is far removed from the traditional noble hero, being greedy and obsessed with money, basically going around either beating people up to steal their money, tricking them, or charging them by the blow when they hit him. Of course, he does come around somewhat by the end, but maintains his extreme avarice and mercenary nature through until the end. The fact that he comes across as a likeable and cheeky fellow rather than a complete cad is thanks mainly to the considerable charisma of David Chiang, who is great in the role and who adds a much needed touch of playfulness. Kam also makes for a fascinating and unconventional protagonist, initially seeming like little more than a psychotic bully who just travels between martial arts schools challenging people for no apparent reason other than violence. Both characters develop throughout the course of the story and their relationship as they team up works brilliantly, as they play off one another in dynamic and winning fashion. This gives the film not only the requisite sense of camaraderie but also a fair amount of depth, enjoying a uniquely cynical edge and a cheerful mixture of amorality and righteousness.
For such a simple set up, the plot is surprisingly convoluted, with lots of backstabbing and deception, mostly revolving around femme fatale Wai, with Lily Lee great in the role. It takes a while for the true villain of the piece to emerge, with Tsang taking his time to build up the story rather than just simply throwing in the usual revenge plot. The film actually gets quite tense towards the end, especially once all of the cards have been played and the reason for Kam’s quest has been revealed.
Tsang’s direction is quirky, and he gives the film a bit more character than other similar efforts of the same period. He throws in a number of offbeat visual devices, including the strange use of freeze frames, and the odd habit of shooting the action through the leaves of plants in the foreground. As might have been expected, the film is not entirely a serious affair, with plenty of knockabout slapstick, though this never detracts too much from the increasingly serious business of vengeance. Offsetting this somewhat is the fact that Tsang inserts a couple of bizarre comedy sequences, which seem to be modelled upon old silent Hollywood screwball comedies. Amusing as these are, they do stick out and are arguably unnecessary. This aside, his handling of the action scenes is solid, and he has the good sense to keep them coming thick and fast, with several impressive sequences including a brutal staff and hoop brawl during the fight filled last half hour.
This ensures that the film remains entertaining throughout, and as a result “The Challenger” is a superior piece of kung fu cinema. Benefiting from interesting characters, a great cast and a high action quotient, it shows Tsang to be equally comfortable behind as well as in front of the camera, and should certainly be enjoyed by all fans of traditional martial arts films.
Eric Tsang (director) / Kuang Ni (screenplay)
CAST: Kwok Kuen Chan, Lung Chan, David Chiang, Ngai Hung Chik, Norman Chu, Chan Dick Hak, Ha Huang, Phillip Ko, Lily Li, Mars, Po Tai