Review: THE FINAL MASTER (2016) - A Thrilling Wing Chun Refresher

To date, I had never seen a Xu Haofeng-directed film. Thus, the weekend was glowing with opportunity for me in this instance - that is, getting to experience a genuine kung fu movie at AMC Empire 25 in the heart of Times Square, New York City, and you're literally swimming in sound as you enter one of the zig-zagging corridors of the room, which really did this film justice for its theatrical entertainment value. Incidentally, this was also my second stab at a Liao Fan film since catching him in Jackie Chan's CZ12 just last year on VoD - Frankly, I've forgotten that film, as forgettable as it is (save for its obvious star power), but its in films like Xu's The Final Master that you're not completely left wondering what happened in the breadth of an hour and forty minutes. Point in fact, it's hard to forget and you're left wanting more, if anything.

The bulk of the story takes off as we meet Chen Shi, a martial arts heir looking to establish a school in Tianjin after being exiled from Canton. Upon consulting with a local notable martial arts figure named Zheng Shan'ao, finds a beleagured, yet suitable wife in restaurant waitress, Guohui, and accordingly, a takes on an apprentice in a local coolie named Geng, so as to not stir any dissonance about training an outsider. Chen is thereby obligated to train Geng to defeat the highest-level disciples from eight schools in order to acquire himself a school of his own. The victories begin accumulating, but not without some glaring consequences under the watchful eye of Madame Zou. Working in collusion to indoctrinate all kung fu schools into the military while weary about Tianjin's own being outclassed by a local prodigy through the training of his newcome master, Zou's intentions are made clear to Chen, forcing him through the ultimate test in faith and loyalty, and all he stands for as a martial artist among martial politicians. Tensions mount, egos clash with the striking sounds of butterfly knives, and blood spills to the tunes of crippling resolve for a final battle that where there will be only one victor.

This particular film is a first for me in quite a few ways, the biggest one of which comes courtesy of the action design and overall vision and treatment. The fights are mostly weapons based with an array of killing devices I have rarely seen in a martial arts movie - much less a film that designates Wing Chun as its main centerpiece for the fights. The action, directed by Xu himself, is blistering and awfully fun at times with moment-to-moment zest and flourishing score that tones each character arc with a sense of indivual personality and charm. Moreover, and far from least of all, Fan's performance as Chen is one of the finest leading roles I've seen in a martial arts movie, with an interpretation that borders on suave, at times, to accompany the stoicism he emits on camera.

Fan's portrayal of Chen next to that of Zhao Guohui in actress Song Jia introduces a relationship mired in rigid conditions, but gradually moves into workable cohesion through further character development, with backstories that aren't contrived or heavily interwoven and convoluted. Song's contribution to the story as Zhao adds to, and in some ways, augments, Chen's own evolution throughout the film. Chen is a tough martial artist and deeply rooted in his own values, and so is Zhao whose own personal woes are often masked with the fantasy of a European man in a distinct photo she keeps in her vanity mirror, overseeing the course of her happiness in an almost divine sense - a tool that doesn't toy around with the emotional resolve between our lead couple, and otherwise serves as a terrific, and often amusing stepping stone for their romance to potentially bloom into something more refined and meaningful apart from its artificial nature. At least one mild exception worth making, however, is in the subplot between the roles of Song and promising actor Song Yang who plays Geng, although it is not as forcibly written and executed further into the film so as to help carry the movie.

Actor Chin Shih-Chieh plays Chin's close confidant, martial arts mogul Zheng, and well into his sixties, brings sheer gravitas to a such a seasoned role that commands a sense of unassuming fragility that outwardly writing him off as someone whose pastimes don't include donning the occasional battlefield armor and commiting to expert-level Wing Chun sparring matches for fun would be a sore mistake on anyone's part. Actress Jiang Wenli contributes a ruthless appeal to on-screen villany as Zou, whose devotion to Tianjin's image in the martial arts world is as unyielding to that of Chen's for Wing Chun in the wake of his own ailing master's wishes.

The ending was a bit eerie and may leave you a little unsettled, as undefined and suggestive as it is apart from what we see. I would complain about how problematic it is for me as a moviegoer considering everything I've seen and felt and hoped for with these characters, although it is a little difficult to while knowing that Xu's heart is where it was upon giving us the ending we see. By the end credits, you're left with a story that was a little hard to follow in a few areas. Gladly, and in some ways, that doesn't take away at all from the excitement and enjoyment of a martial arts movie such as what we see in The Final Master. Were it not for its eloquent, and sometimes playful scoring, and fight sequences performed with grace and beauty in assembly with the proper in-your-face brutality that a kung fu movie demands, and performances that keep you gripped throughout, the film would be nothing short of myopic and meandering.

For this, Xu's mesmerising vision for and conducive script places you deep into his world as he imagines it, per his earlier martial arts fiction anthology work on which the film is based. Martial arts and every day life are one and the same - compromises are debated and made and politics are played among opponents sitting in the company of tea, or at the tip of many a bladed weapon - from handy butterfly knives and apparati complete with their own detachable blades, to hooked weapons that can help trap and maim other weapons and their bearers, and even swords the size of plywood. Xu is probably the first director I have seen apply such a sophistication and knowledge to the use and primitive nature of these devices, further negotiating just how much of a signature movie this is in its invocation of Wing Chun. It's things like this that exemplify just why it is we should be thankful that that committe at the Golden Horse Awards awarded this film late last year at its 2015 ceremony for Best Action Choreography.

The absolute quality here, however, and it must be said again, lies in the action design. Unless you have your own surround sound at home, your best bet in fully enjoying this is in a quality theater tooled with a great, immersive sound system. The cinematography is as tight as much of the editing, but the pristine, screeching sharpness of the audio amid the illustrious and grounded kung fu clashes are what really draw you in. The fights are grounded, fast and sold on the basis of the story in its substance, further lending reverence and meaning to the slickness, visceral coolness and style Xu emits in his work on top of the plot at hand, and the feudal, old school nature of our characters.

I wholly recommend bringing friends to see this movie if you can, just as I did on Satuday night a few New York City locals - up-and-coming actor Ricky Barksdale, stuntwoman and absolute sweetheart Cheryl Lewis, two visiting members of martial arts stage, film and stunt group, EMC Monkeys, stuntmen Malay Kim and Tony Sre. The only thing we weren't able to do after the movie was hang out together for a little while longer seeing as how late it was and we all had things to do the next day. At any rate though, and with the rarity of meeting someone I've interviewed for a platform such as this one, it was worth it to share a few hours and hugs with people I had spent the last three years writing about. It was exciting and amply rewarding, and I personally thank Virginia, the marketing coordinator over at the film's U.S. theatrical distributor at United Entertainment Partners for making this weekend a memorable one from afar.

Photo courtesy of Cheryl Lewis behind the lens - From L to R: Ricky Barksdale, Tony Sre, myself and Malay Kim.
Speaking of Wing Chun on film - reflecting on my brief dialogue with Lewis and Barksdale seperately on Saturday evening - the release of The Final Master (or The Master as it was known upon its China release late last year), comes almost parallel with the release of Wilson Yip's own electric endeavor, Ip Man 3 which became a box office hit. Wing Chun movies have existed since before a lot of us were born, but the hype surrounding films like the Donnie Yen-starring Ip Man trilogy have rightly become definitive for bringing Wing Chun to the mainstream in the last eight years. That said, Liao Fan, the award-winning star of last year's thriller, Black Coal, Thin Ice, may not be as shimmering in the same capacity on the subject of international appeal, but he leaves off this chapter with a valuable offering for martial arts cinema fans in a film that proves refreshing in almost every way you might find yourself looking at Wing Chun on film.

The movie isn't perfect as portions of the story might throw you off. Nevertheless, the film offers its worth in morsels of intrigue and danger with a few love stories to boot, and an exhuberance that tends to take over to make up for whatever shortcomings you might spot in your own viewing. If you love kung fu movies that are less distracting in fandom and are just as thrilling in story, drama and poignant with an organic approach to action that doesn't oversell, Xu's The Final Master will surely hit the reset button for you and welcome you to the next level of your martial arts journey.


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