Adapting a script based on the life of the last Wing Chun master’s quest to pass down his art in pre-WWII China, Xu Haofeng (the writer of “The Grandmaster) decided to use an original style of narrative in order to separate his film from the plethora of similar productions coming out of Hong Kong at the moment. Let us find out if he succeeded.
Wing Chun grandmaster Chen is the last practitioner of the art after his master died. As he tries to keep Wing Chun alive, he also tries to fulfill his master’s dream, to open a dojo in Tianjin, the “capital” of the martial worlds in the 1930’s Shanghai. In his mission, he has the help of Master Zheng, a board member of the Tianjin Martial Art’s Committee, who is considered the ultimate martial arts master in the city. As the committee is the only one that can allow the opening of a new school, Zhang navigates Chen though the actions he must take in order to persuade its members that he is not after power, although he has defeat eight schools before they decide in favor of him. The first step towards that is to take a wife and start living in modest fashion, and then a disciple. Chen chooses Zhao as his wife, a very beautiful woman who has become a social pariah and Geng as his disciple, a cocky and ambitious coolie, who challenges him and loses, as soon as Chen arrives in Tianjin. As the years pass, Geng becomes a worthy fighter and achieves the wins Chen needs; however, the committee grows suspicious, the army gets involved, and treacheries, politics, and (actual) backstabbing starts taking place.
Xu Haofeng directs one of the most complicated stories ever witnessed in a martial arts film, with the back and forths in the time frame, the many characters coming and going at an incredible speed, the rather confusing relationships between all members involved, and the intricate politics that form a very strange (im)balance. Furthermore, the style of narrative does not help at all, as Haofeng does not make any effort to keep the story understandable, while the frantic pace of the changing of the scenes makes the movie even more disorienting. His own and He Sisi’s editing also moves towards the same direction, making utterly abrupt cuts in unsuspected moments into completely different settings and characters. Lastly, An Wei’s recurring theme, which accompanies many of the scenes, is very quirky and sounds unfit with the images portrayed on screen. Perhaps Haofeng wanted to give music video aesthetics to the narrative with all the above, but their combination ended up in something completely different, which actually faults the movie.
Enough with the cons though. “The Final Master” is a martial arts film, and the main element that deems if a movie in this category is good or not is the quality of the action scenes. In that aspect, the movie is truly impervious and Haofeng Xu (again) along with Yunfei Fu have done a wonderful job in the action choreography department, presenting a number of originally portrayed and quite intricate martial arts scenes. The direction and the editing of the film also come together nicely in this sequences, along with Xiaoming Wang’s special effects, and the outcome is truly impressive, to the point that one can forget the faults in the narrative. This elaborateness finds its apogee in the final sequence, with the various techniques and different weapons used presenting a plethora of brief, but well depicted duels.
Tianlin Wang’s cinematography is also quite good, retaining the weird, but impressive aesthetics of the film throughout its duration and through a number of different settings.
The acting in the movie follows the strange ways of the narrative, with some of the actors performing with a distinct theatricality, like Wenli Jiang as “The Madam” and Jue Huang as “The Colonel” and others as caricatures, like Yang Song as Geng Lienchen. Fan Liao as Master Chen on the other hand, practices a restraint that, seemingly, appears as completely strange to the other acts, but in the end, seems to fit his character to perfection.
“The Final Master” left me puzzled as to its quality, since, although the narrative has many faults, the action is truly elaborate. In that fashion, I will leave my final decision open and let you decide on the film.