The Final Master (2015)

65% – Critics
61% – Audience

The Final Master Storyline

A Wing Chun master has to defeat 8 martial arts schools to open his own school, yet he has become a chess piece to the local power dynamics.

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The Final Master Movie Reviews

A new style of Kung-fu genre

A screening of Haofeng Xu’s latest martial art picture, his fourth feature and the fresh winner of BEST ACTION CHOREOGRAPHY in 2015 Golden Horse Awards, Haofeng, the co-screenwriter of Kar Wai Wong’s THE GRANDMASTER (2013), has already manifested his unique philosophy and choreography of wushu since his shoestring budget second film THE SWORD IDENTITY (2011).

Although the follow-up JUDGE ARCHER (2012) still hasn’t secured a release date in mainland China, THE MASTER undoubtedly is Haofeng’s most ambitious and mainstream work to date, with a more bankable cast, lead by Liao as the master Chen, a southern master of Wing Chun, arrives in Tianjin during the beginning of 20th century, trying to open his own Kung-fu school, but there are certain rules he must obey in the flourishing martial art world, he marries Zhao (Jia Song), a sultry waitress in a posh restaurant and recruits a protégé Gen (Yang Song), whom he personally trains to be his stepping stone to astonish the local schools, which is firstly governed by Master Zhen (Jin), whom Chen makes a pact with to attain his goal. But soon he is usurped by the widow Ms. Zhou (Jiang), who burns with ambition and colludes with the warlord Lin (Huang), a former pupil of Zhen, together they vainly attempt to militarise all the Kung-fu schools, whereas Gen and Chen become the last stumbling blocks in their way.

What genuinely makes Haofeng’s style so distinctive? Visually speaking, it is his idiosyncratic close-combat motion, the fast-moving and rapidly-editing techniques which transform combat skills from being aesthetically elegant (i.e. oriental gravity-defying jumping and flying) to something embedded with ritualistic devotion and awesome mastery, which is unsparingly efficient (sometimes even minimal) and deceivingly realistic, also, a glut of ancient Chinese weapons can maximally pique interest from viewers. On the other hand, thematically speaking, THE MASTER evokes the connotations of “anti-Kung-fu world”, a rather bleak take on the conservative and fickle characteristics of these so-called martial artists, their mercenary pursuit trumps the noble idea of passing the knowledge on to their successors, Chen and Gen’s master- and-apprentice relation is hinged solely on the former’s personal interest, and the latter is a pawn whom he can desert without blinking his eyes, more complicated is his marriage with Zhao, and his rapport with Zhen, there is something pretty dark in Chen’s motive to earn his name, yet the villainess Zhou can outsmart him in every step, for her self-seeking purpose though, only one misstep (one cannot overthrow all the formulae of a well-established genre), there is no one in her team can beat master Chen.

As a Kung-fu film, THE MASTER has a surprisingly low body count (only 2 major characters die in the film), killing becomes inhuman and utterly unnecessary when paralysing your opponents is sufficient enough to soldier on relentlessly. With an unhurried open ending, the story is far from taking its curtain call while a subsequent cat-and-mouse game is shaping up, Haofeng shows his confidence of a sure-fire sequel in the future. The cast is a shade uneven while veteran players Liao, Jin and Jiang all shine with impressive presences. Still, sometimes the dialogues need a bit more fine-tuning to sound believable under certain contexts, however, one sure thing is that Haofeng Xu has stoutly emerged as one of the most aspiring director radiant with an auteurist flair presently, in the traditional Chinese Kung-fu territory, who is worthy of the admiration from a much larger scale of spectators!

Martial Arts Period Piece

A Wing Chun master (Fan Liao of “Black Coal, Thin Ice”) has to defeat eight martial arts schools to open his own school. At the same time, he has become a chess piece in the local power dynamics.

Right off the bat, anyone who loves good cinematography is going to appreciate “The Final Master”. Director of photography Tianlin Wang brings with him a rich color palette that makes even the opening credits appear sharp and vibrant. The hues and crispness bring to life this time period in ways that only a great man behind the camera can. Accompanied by an interesting score composed of horns and strings (thanks to Wei An), we almost have a noir or mystery feel.

There is a fascinating mix of Asian and European cultures, with the Chinese embracing certain elements of upper class British culture. For those in the West, it is usually the American or Englishman in a story who wanders into the foreign land (“the Orient”)… seeing things from the Chinese perspective is a nice switch. The inclusion of Belarusian dancers is also a nice touch, adding in a third component of cross-culture. Not only is there the dominant East-meets-West aspect, but a Soviet bloc piece, as well, which fits in neither one side or the other.

While the reviewer’s knowledge of martial arts and its history is admittedly limited, there is something strange about the film referring to our hero as the last of the Wing Chun masters. Today, Wing Chun is known as the martial arts variant of Ip Man, Bruce Lee and even Robert Downey, Jr of all people. Perhaps this was lost in translation, but it defies belief that the ancient art was known by only one man in 1930 before becoming the most popular form of “kung fu” today.

Those looking for a classic, Shaw Brothers-style movie should be aware that the hand-to-hand martial arts is limited in this picture. However, the blade-on-blade action is intense and more than makes up for it. Every possible variation of sword, axe, dagger and more is utilized, including some that seem impossibly large to wield. In an era (1930s Tianjin) where guns were plentiful, it is fascinating that there is some level of honor about what is allowed in combat.

Historical nitpicks aside, this is a great film with beautiful cinematography and plenty of action. We also get a great supporting character in Madame Zou, played by Wenli Jiang (“Farewell My Concubine”). The movie was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 52nd Golden Horse Film Awards, as well as Best Supporting Actress and Best Choreography. It rightfully won in the latter category. North American audiences now get a chance to see the picture, as it screens July 16 at the Fantasia International Film Festival.

Real “Kungfu” and real China

If you are looking for funny or fancy kungfu actions, this is probably not your best choice. This movie shows the real kungfu: simple but effective moves, moves that you would see if you ever fight with a real world kungfu fighter. Being a Chinese, I grew up watching kungfu movies.If all you can see are fighting scenes, then it’s merely a Chinese boxing movie. Kungfu is a sport, a fighting skill, but most of all a philosophy, or at the very least, a particular set of values. In this movie, the ideal philosophy of kungfu is greatly challenged. You’ll see the authentic Chinese traditional values of family, factions, love and teacher-student relationship. No heroes, but only characters who are struggling with honors, duties and survival in a special historic setting. Perhaps not everyone would love this movie, but I guarantee you this story is not a cliché.