THE FINAL MASTER (2015) is the third film by author / director Xu Haofeng, again based on his own novel. I remember watching a trailer for this one and thinking about watching it – man, I blew it, I could have had these amazing movies in my life years back!
This continues the stylistic and historical progression of THE SWORD IDENTITY (Ming Dynasty) and JUDGE ARCHER (1920s), which took place in the city of Tianjin from 1932. It explores some of the same themes for warriors navigating the fixed traditions of martial arts to ensure that their preferred styles can be passed on to the next generation – aging men trying to secure their legacy, and young men trying to prove themselves. This involves the last Wing Chun Grand Master Chen (Liao Fan, BLACK COAL, THIN ICE) who enters into an agreement with the ready to retire Grand Master Zheng (Chin Shi-chieh, REIGN OF ASSASSINS, THE GUILLOTINES, THE GRANDMASTER) to help him set up a school in Tianjin.
Zheng explains the extremely complicated policy of the situation. Chen had to win challenges against all eight schools to get permission to open his own school. Then he was to defeat a master chosen from among all the schools. Since he is not local, they would never accept a loss for him and would drive him out of town if he won. So instead, he will have to hire a local fighter as an apprentice and train him enough to win. And they will also drive that poor kid out of town, but Chen will at least be allowed to stay and open his school.
And there is more! Zheng says he himself will be chosen as the master that the apprentice will have to fight against. He wants to retire after that and does not want to be completely humiliated in his last duel, so as part of the deal, Chen has to teach him his knife fighting techniques.
With all that training, it’s going to take three years, and it’s even more complicated than that. Chen (who comes from a rich family) has to live in poverty in a slum in order for the masters to trust him. He convinces Zhao (Song Jia, RED CLIFF, THE BODYGUARD), who works as a waitress at a fancy restaurant, to marry him. She does not seem to like him, but accepts his proposal for societal reasons, as she is considered disgraced after having a not-quite-Chinese baby as a teenager. There’s some old-fashioned romance in here, and although I can not relate to this type of arrangement and clearly turned Chen on in a scene where he angrily pushes her to the ground using Wing Chun movements, she’s a really strong character, and there are some real chemistry between them.
The apprentice ends up being Geng Liangchen (Sang Yang who played it with the sword in THE SWORD IDENTITY and Judge Archer in JUDGE ARCHER), which Chen chooses after defeating him in a duel. Doofus saw Zhao on the street, thought she was hot, and decided to follow her home to challenge her husband. He works as a coolie (rickshaw driver), but Chen orders him to save his energy for training, so he only starts using his cart to sell books, creating a persistent conflict with the other coolies.
There are a lot of different motives and manipulations going on here, but if there’s a villain, it’s a criminal boss named Madame Zou (Jiang Wenli, GOODBYE MY CONCUBINE) who seems to be leading all the schools. She dresses in traditional male clothing, has short hair and either suggests or pretends attraction to Zhao, so this could certainly qualify as a negative lesbian stereotype. But she’s not completely evil either, and she’s a widow, so I like the idea that she’s lived her best life since her husband’s death.
While this preserves the SWORD IDENTITY rule of having to defeat all the local schools in challenges to the right to open a new school, it is a more modern world with much more international influence. Lots of western style clothes, lots of white people walking around, people meeting over coffee. Zhao has a photo of Rudolph Valentino on her mirror, she later says she prays to him like a god, and then reveals that she likes him because he reminds her of the white man who fertilized her when she was 17. She likes to go to a French cafe and order croissants. She has a ring for the cigarette holder that turns out to be left by her battered Valentino. Maybe we should reconsider the meaning of her always having a cig burning on it when she’s in love with Chen.
There is also a radio and a Steinway organ, which go hand in hand with a film projector. A duel is filmed to humiliate Zheng by showing (misleading) evidence of his defeat when all the masters are gathered to watch a movie. I like the idea of a screening series for kung fu masters! Their selection is a Chinese serial called THE BURNING OF THE RED LOTUS TEMPLE. It really existed, but has been lost, so Haofeng is having fun recording some scenes in retro style.
Many Chinese and Hong Kong movies have humor in them that is too broad for me, but Xus is always very skewed. There are some really fun dialogues, and no assaults. There’s still a serious conversation going on in a scene where Chen tries the ridiculous feat of eating eight free loaves of bread at a restaurant to prove himself to Zheng. Another good thing is when the champions want Geng to join them for a feast at a fancy restaurant to celebrate his first victory, but he is not interested, so they say “You can choose the place”, and they all end up sitting uncomfortably by a shaky tree. table by a tea cart operated by Geng’s elf-like crush (Madina Memet, KUNG FU LEAGUE).
The action is plentiful, varied and excellent. Most of it is weapon-oriented – lots of blades with special grips and angles to grab and slide against their opponents’ blades. Weapons listed only in the character names of the closing texts include curved knives, broadswords, tomahawks, daggers, halberds, and swords. (Each of them has a bunch of fighters on the list.) There are various interesting places for the battles, from a coffee shop to a narrow stone alley. There is some bold training in spinning, spring-loaded objects covered by rods or swords.
As always in Xu’s films, the sound effects are very important, and like JUDGE ARCHER, it has a cool and unique score by An Wei, who mostly uses trumpet, feedback guitar and a violin.
Like JUDGE ARCHER, it has a really captivating plot that eventually leaves me a little lost, but ends up on a high note. I really love these stories, even when they get complicated, but it’s the accumulation of amazing scenes and small details that make Xu a unique voice. I love it in both the introductory and concluding challenges Chen struggles wearing shiny white dress shoes. One of Geng’s duels is against a women’s kicker who fights in heels. I love that Brother Zheng takes him to a Belarusian dance performance to show him that the precision of the movements reminds him of martial arts. (I thought he would find a way to apply it, but his interest in these long-legged young women turns out to be the more obvious.) I love that Geng’s tea cart lady seems to be from some nomadic culture (what THE SWORD IDENTITY’s subtitles called “gypsies”, but I do not know a better name), and when she sees that Geng is wounded, she pulls out a knife, cuts off some of her own hair, sets fire to the hair on top of the blade and uses it then to seal the wound. Handy, if terrible smell!
There are too many amazing scenes and sequences to count, but I think my favorite is when Zhao’s purse is stolen by a little street kid. She chases the kid into an alley, where he gives the purse to an old man sitting on a bench, and then a bunch of shirtless young men surround her.
Suddenly, Chen is there, wearing his chic white outfit and holding a small stray dog in one hand as he takes out the first bully. He puts the dog away before beating the others and then goes and sits next to the boss without looking at him. The guy just throws him the purse and runs.
But that’s just the prelude! When the old guy leaves, he talks shit, and dares Chen to stay in the alley because he comes back with more guys and kicks him in the ass. “Can you take thieves with you?” asks Chen.
“I’m waiting,” Chen says. And he’s not kidding.
So Chen sets up a bench and sits down with Zhao to wait for the guy to come back with more of his guys. She tells him that holding the dog reminded her of the baby she had as a teenager and that even though everyone thinks the baby was killed, he was actually sold. They have this quiet, serious talk about their past and what they want in their lives and it continues while the old man returns with the 20 thugs and they start attacking. Chen stays seated at the start, sending them with a bamboo pole and returning to continue the conversation after each one.
I mean, it’s a fucking good movie. Moving melodrama, dry humor and great action at the same time that somehow reinforce each other, neither pulling nor distracting. Beautiful.
Xu completed a fourth film, THE HIDDEN SWORD, in 2017. Unfortunately, after playing film festivals, its release was abruptly canceled due to apparent censorship issues. Hopefully we will eventually be able to see it and his fifth film, SHI YAN JUAN TIAN YA, which IMDb says is in post-production. Until then, I’ll have to check out MONK COMES DOWN THE MOUNTAIN (2015), a Chen Kaige movie based on one of Xu’s novels.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 19th, 2022 at 7:19 and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave an answer. Pinging is currently not allowed.