Challenger, The (1979) Review

"The Challenger" Chinese Theatrical Poster

"The Challenger" Chinese Theatrical Poster

AKA: Deadly Challenger
Director: Eric Tsang
Producer: Lo Wei
Cast: David Chiang, Norman Chu, Lily Li Li Li, Philip Ko Fei, Eric Tsang, Huang Ha, Peter Chan Lung, Mars, Tai Bo, Alan Chan, Benny Lai, Chan Dik Hak, Chan Siu Gai
Running Time: 87 min.

By Matthew Le-feuvre

When Hong Kong stalwart and one-time international star, David Chiang (Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires) re-negotiated his contract with the venerated Shaw Brothers on a one-picture basis, the lustre and uncongested environs of Taiwan was, decidedly, his next port of call. And like Jimmy Wang Yu, Taiwan’s flourishing marginally commercial film industry offered Chiang creative freedom and working conditions that were less hectic, less routined, yet the demands of schedules and post-production marketing nevertheless sufficed.

With a distinguished career which has enjoyed the triumvirate benefits of acting, producing, and directing, David (aka John) Chiang Wei Nien essentially began his ascent into film stardom as far back as 1960 (although actually made his debut aged four). Indeed, nondescript walk-ons, standins or disposable stuntman parts showcased his relative inexperience – noticably in The Golden Swallow and The One-Armed Swordsman – but this was a necessary foundation before lead, or even supporting roles were contractually furnished.

Propitiously, it was the much lauded filmmaker, Chang Cheh, who discovered and nurtured Chiang into replacing local icon, Jimmy Wang Yu – who by common knowledge decamped to “fruitful pastures.” Controversial, though inspired, after a sequence of prevalent wu-xia dramas (The Invincible Fist, Have Sword Will Travel and The Heroic Ones), the physical labours Chiang subjected himself to in dealing with/or conforming to Cheh’s epic scopes effectively and deservedly garnered him several nominations, particularly cult favourite Vengeance – an alternative, finely crafted reworking of John Boorman’s arthouse thriller Point Blank.

Regardless of its explicit violence, baroque set interiors and image laden with obsessive symbolism of man’s inner animal, Chiang’s almost surreal depiction of a truly tortured soul won him ‘The Best Actor’ accolade. Furthermore, while the implementations of foot-long daggers, punctured torsos, or sliced throats may have initially divided audiences, there is however an undeniable poetic grace seldom understood (by critics), but equally hard to neglect because of the protagonist’s one dimensional focus.

Although Chiang continued down other avenues of dramatic expression in pictures such as: The Four Riders, The Generation Gap and The Drug Addict, he often felt these productions negated any true intimations of the human condition: well in part, anyway! Suffice too say, reality and fantasy are (in philosophical terms) mere complimentary facets of each other, and no doubt Chiang-the Actor; or Chiang-the Artist was/is conciously aware of these celluloid shortcomings. Sadly, it appears, he hasn’t really found his dream project: a script denoting “social honesty”.

In some creative circles this may be unduly typified as an “unreachable mountain summit” (Jorodowski’s unmade Dune adaptation for example!) or a “Holy Grail” even, where – metaphors aside – compromise or artistic license are (each) for a better description thoroughly overshadowed by the priority of commerce, as well as the unblinking eyes of studio executives fueled solely by visions of healthy box office returns, packed houses (cineplexes) and screaming admirers. Pragmatically, and safely from the ever looming manevolence of (potential) self-ruination, Chiang consorted to ‘kung fu comedy’ with a proverbial twist.

Reuniting with the personable, though invariably unsmiling, Tsiu-Siu Keung (Shaolin Mantis); Chiang joint-credits the electric jade screen as ‘Yao’ an archetypal fortune hunting con man eager too make that ‘big score.’ At the opposite end of the spectrum, the motivations of capitalism or fame are inconsequential to the eponymous ‘challenger,’ Kam Ching Hung (Keung). Instead his enigmatic resolve – which seems obsessional, arrogant and misguided – intrigues Yao into instigating a contest of wits and fists too which Hung majestically walks away to continue his gaunlet run against a myriad of provincial schools: the question is why?

Singular and unremitting, Hung’s forceful (and in some instances comical) duels, moreover attracts the curiosity of shady miscreant restaurant/casino owner, Pau (Philip Kao Fei – sporting an obligatory wig) and his duplicious lover, Wei (Lily Lei). Together they orchestrate a scheme to discover ‘the challenger’s’ real identity/intentions by tempting and manipulating Yao with a financial offer. Meanwhile, Pau becomes increasingly more uneasy with Hung’s eccentric behaviour.

The stakes are raised even higher as Yao, now consumed by avarice, conspires with Wei in an attempt to kill both Hung and Pao, only to learn in time the genuine, tragic circumstances of ‘the challenger’ and his deeply personal link to Pao. In a kinetic, suspense-loaded conclusion, Hung and Yao combine their fighting dexterity against Pao’s equally capable minions, and naturally, Pao himself, in a course of action that will determine a shocking inevitability.

Verdict: A confined premise, this is not! On the contrary, at the heart of The Challenger is a story about two contradictory extremes: personal vengeance and personal greed. While some viewers may find the proceedings convoluted with too many twists and chicanery, it is nonetheless a unique excursion into the human psyche and how it is expressed through the abstract beauty of kung fu.

Extraordinarily, the interplay between Tsui Siu Keung and David Chiang perfectly counter-balances each others’ artistic strengths and overt talent: Chiang’s extrovertness is the ‘Yin’ to Keung’s laconic ‘Yang’ exterior, and even if there are no sumptious production values, one can cast aside the obvious budgetary limitations in favour of an intelligent script and Eric Tsang’s proficiently flowing direction.

Matthew Le-feuvre’s Rating: 9/10

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