Director and writer Xu Haofeng has quite literally grown up with martial arts. A student of them since the age of 14, he’s applied his practical talents to a series of novels and films, including penning the script for Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster. Adapting his own novel The Master, Xu conveys his clear love for the genre in this exploration of the end of an era, one that contrasts the tension between individualism and collectivist military thinking in pre-Second World War China.
THE FINAL MASTER is about the last Wing-Chun practitioner, Master Chen (Liao Fan), who promises his dying master that he will pass down his legacy by opening an academy in the martial arts mecca of Tianjin, the centre of martial arts at the time. The academies will not accept an outsider, so he takes on a local “coolie” as an apprentice (Song Yang) to beat the eight schools. Adding intrigue to the standard genre storyline is the increasing presence of the military in the district, a sign of the changing times. These might just serve to fill in the moments between set pieces, but it marks Xu’s film as something distinct, even if they serve to overcomplicate the plot. Even so, Xu isn’t beyond injecting a few twists here and there, including a scene where Chen fights off 20 thugs while confessing his life story to his lover.
Meticulously shot by veteran Wang Tianlin, the Xian Ruiqing (Eastern Bandits) production design is atmospheric and sensual. From the gorgeous costumes to the lingering shots on cigarette smoke trails, the camera devours the lush 1930s mix of traditional costumes and Western clothing styles, not to mention the glamorous Zhao Guo Hui (Song Jia). An Wei’s sexy Jazz inspired score is occasionally incongruous with the action, but adds to the idea of Western influences creeping into Tianjin life at every turn. Yet it’s the fast and brutal street fights that Xu uses to tell his primary story, choreographing them principally with knives to draw a line between the styles of the North and the South. Xu intentionally shows fully body shots during these scenes, as opposed to the “Hong Kong” close-ups and quick cuts. Despite the weight of the political wrangling plot, and the inconclusiveness of the ambiguous ending, it’s through the showcasing of this martial arts style that Xu literally cuts through with his message of selfhood in the face of the system.
2015 | China | DIR: Xu Haofeng | WRITERS: Xu Haofeng | CAST: Liao Fan, Song Jia, Jiang Wenli, Jin Shi-Jye, Song Yang and Huang Jue | DISTRIBUTOR: United Entertainment Partners (US) | RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes | RATING:★★★¾ (7.5/10)
THE FINAL MASTER is in selected cities in the US starting June 3 and 10.