SIFF Film Review – The Final Master
The Final Master
In writer/director Haofeng Xu’s The Final Master (2015), a Wing Chun practitioner (Fan Liao) attempts to open a school in the city of Tianjin. The master wants to preserve the martial art for future generations, as was the dying wish of his master. However, due to local politics of the pre-WWII era, the master must follow strict guidelines to establish a school. One – interestingly enough – requires him to defeat eight other schools. Even more challenging, he can’t do it himself. The master must take on a disciple, train them, and then let them defeat the other schools themselves. Sheesh, talk about overcoming some obstacles!
This premise is a tried and true outline for many kung fu and martial arts films. An expert master, a youthful student, competing schools, a historical context – it’s all pretty familiar stuff. Haofeng Xu even wrote a similar (and better) version of this in Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013). He attempts to differentiate his film by giving his protagonist dual blades as the weapon of choice. Based in Wing Chun, the fight choreography uses a “push” approach, where enemies come in very close together using their knives as though they were grappling. Aesthetically, this is a nice little change of pace from the usual kick/punch choreography we’ve seen before. I’m not going to claim that this is the first time it’s been done on screen, but it did make for an interesting watch.
The production design (by Rui Qing Xian) had an authentic feel to the time. From the costumes to the set design, everything seemed appropriate while maintaining a slick and polished look. Often my eye was drawn the to the background, with wide shots filled with extras operating in constant motion. City streets, train stations, and outdoor restaurants were full of people. It lent to a texture that many might miss out on. In fact, the way Xu constructs this world may be more engaging then the story he’s placing within it.
Sadly, the plot here falls flat. Character motivations are thin, restricting many of the performances to one dimension. On paper, the master should have been an interesting character. He’s stuck between fulfilling his goal of opening up a school and compromising certain ideals with the city to achieve them. His wife (Song Jia) is dutiful and loyal to him. Even when their marriage is strained due to the master’s ambitions, we never get a sense that their relationship is ever in real danger. Their conversations are dull and lifeless. When they have sex, it’s more mechanical than passionate, neither one enjoying it very much.
The dynamic between the master and his apprentice (Song Yang) is also fairly shallow. There’s no relationship building between them. We expect there to be some form of teaching or training where the master shows the student his moves, but those scenes are completely missing here. Come to think of it, the two don’t share that many moments together at all. The student magically becomes adept at Wing Chun, challenging other schools and beating many of them with ease. The master often hears about the student’s accomplishments second hand by witnesses. It’s a major misstep to not focus on the connection between the master and the student, because their bond is severely tested during the second half. How the master feels about the student is the key emotional theme, dictating much of the action as the narrative reaches the climax. But because we don’t get the groundwork between them, we’re not as drawn in. Fan Liao has an intensity to his face that can speak volumes, but his performance is gone to waste because not enough time is spent showing us why his character sympathizes with the student to begin with.
If there’s any performance that stands out, it’s Jiang Wenli’s as The Madame. The Madame is the head of the one of Tianjin’s martial art schools, and has ties with the military. With high leather boots and a short haircut slicked close to her scalp, The Madame is easily the most colorful of the entire cast. We don’t get much background information on her, other than representative of the changing times. Jiang Wenli is clearly having a ball with the role. She saunters around, gesturing with a cool menace. While everyone else is super serious, Jiang Wenli is charismatic. Her smile is more threatening than any of the posturing done by other characters.
Other than Jiang Wenli’s performance, the production value, and the distinctive use of weaponry, there isn’t much in The Final Master that hasn’t been done in better movies. The character development lacks substance, and at one hour and forty-nine minutes, the narrative is bloated for what is – in essence – an intimate story. Fans of kung fu and martial arts films will most likely get something out of this. For the casual viewer interested in diving into the genre, I’m not sure this is the best place to start.