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Final Master, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/06/16 02:13:48

"Martial arts skill can get you far, but not always all the way."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

When I saw Xu Haofeng's "The Sword Identity" four years ago, I thought it was as straight-faced a satire on martial-arts movies as you would find; seeing his follow-up "The Master" (called "The Final Master" in the USA to avoid confusion with various other productions), which is built upon many of the same plot points, I'm not so sure that was the case. Xu's fascination with the secretive martial-arts world of the past is legitimate, serving as inspiration for a nifty piece of work with a couple of terrific action pieces.

It starts in 1932, when the Chinese city of Tianjin has nineteen martial arts academies and an entrenched establishment that makes it difficult for an outsider like Chen Shi (Liao Fan), a Wing-Chun master from Canton, to open his own school there, even with the respect and friendship of Grandmaster Zheng Shan'ao (Chin Shih-chieh). The rules say that if Chen or a disciple defeats the champions of at least eight schools, he will be allowed to open one (although it's a bit more complicated than that). He finds his first student in Geng Liangchen (Song Yang), a coolie who turns out to be prodigy.

There's an interesting dynamic between Chen and Zheng, in that the older Zheng is the forward-looking one, fascinated by the Western things that are becoming fixtures in his city and recognizing that the traditional way of doing things well have them losing more ground to the West, while Chen is reluctant to be the one to challenge tradition on his behalf. Unlike many films set in this time and place, the westernization feels like an insidious intrusion - compare it to the stylish modernity of The Phantom of the Theatre, or the sneering foreign devils of many more overtly-nationalist Chinese movies. As the film goes on, Xu reveals that there is plenty going on among the schools both related to this theme and hovering around it.

With that dynamic established, it lets Xu set master, grandmaster, and student up as three different sorts of cool, and all three actors deliver. Song Yang is given a cocky son of a gun to play in Geng, and while he gets chances to make proclamations about the toughness of folks from Tianjin or grimace in suffering in the bigger moments, it's the look on his face mid-melee that often sell the character - he's not just enjoying the chance to put a fist in the face of some upper-class type, but being able to show that he can do it with style. Chin Shih-chieh, meanwhile, shows wisdom without having to be cryptic - there's a weight to his experience that isn't entirely regret. Star Liao Fan manages impressive focus as Chen Shi, and that drive doesn't disappear as he starts to form more genuine attachments with the people whom he planned to use as pawns.

The three aren't exactly each paired with a woman, but there is one from each generation, more or less. Song Jia has the biggest part as Zhao Guohui, the woman with enough backstory, tragic and otherwise, to have a movie of her own that Chen takes as a wife, and she often serves as a tie between the fantasies of this period, the brassy femme fatale who can also be down-to-earth and occasionally sentimental; she makes a character that the audience might not immediately see as emotionally invested in the story someone that everyone connects with. It's a more complex part than the young tea lady played by Maidina, although she adds a lot of good feelings to otherwise rote scenes. Still, they don't drive the story nearly as much as Jiang Wenli's Madam Zou, who pops up early and takes on a bigger role as the film goes on, making things happen behind the scenes and sparring verbally with Chen Shi in the same way everyone else does physically, letting just the right amount of smiling ruthlessness out from behind some very stylish costuming choices.

It's the physical confrontations that can stand out with this sort of movie, of course, and The Master offers up a couple of doozies. The opening sequence of the film spends just enough time talking about the art of fighting before getting to it in surprisingly impressive fashion, letting the audience know that Xu knows of what he speaks before giving a demonstration. Xu has impressively end-to-end control of this movie - he is credited with the original novella, screenplay, direction, stunt co-ordination, co-producer, and editing - and there are times when another voice or two might have helped as the story occasionally can seem somewhat opaque, especially to an outsider, with Xu sometimes apparently following his interests even when it brings the movie off track. On the other hand, when those interests include a great fight scene - and despite a story built around Geng beating eight champions, we only get to see two or three of those - Xu delivers like few others: There is an extended sequence toward the end of Chen running a gauntlet of martial artists that is not only excellent in terms of choreography but which ha a number of small character arcs that play out along the way and not a little bit of symbolism as this underdog newcomer must burst out of a system he has struggled so hard to join, with only small knives to counter the truly massive weapons the old guard can wield against him.

The film might go down a bit easier for some with a little more martial-arts action and a little less martial-arts politics, but that focus likely will appeal to folks who are fans of the same sort of martial-arts stories Xu clearly loves, and there's certainly plenty for those who like quality kung fu action.

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