Director: Haofeng Xu
Screenplay: Haofeng Xu
Based on a Novel by: Haofeng Xu
Starring: Fan Liao, Jia Song, Wenli Jiang, Shih-Chieh King, Yang Song, Madina Memet, Jue Huang
Duration: 109 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
The Final Master was written and directed by Haofeng Xu, who also wrote the original novel it was based on. A martial artist himself, Haofeng is most famous for writing Kar-Wai Wong’s The Grandmaster, which was obviously successful enough to grant him such control over The Final Master. Now I wasn’t a massive fan of The Grandmaster, but I’m enough of a fan of martial arts movies to have been interested in watching this, particularly after garnering largely positive reviews elsewhere.
The Final Master follows Chen (Fan Liao), who is a master of Wing Chun, in his quest to open his own school to teach the little known practise (at the time) in Tianjin, a city famous for its martial arts. Well protected traditional rules inhibit this wish though as masters are only allowed to teach two students in their lifetime. To bypass this, Chen, aided by Grandmaster Zheng Shan’ao (Shih-Chieh King), who is impressed by his skills, plans to develop a student to such a level that he can defeat 8 of the Tianjin schools, allowing him to open his own school through another rule.
Chen is an outsider to Tianjin though, so another way he plans to beat the system and open his school is to marry a local girl and find a student from the area too. He does this in the shape of the independent Zhao (Jia Song), who reluctantly agrees to enter the sham marriage, and Geng (Yang Song) who is impressed by Chen’s skills so comes to challenge him. In picking this local coolie over the student Zheng had picked for him, Chen further aggravates the Grandmaster, but he agrees to the plan, so long as he can defeat the student himself in the end, to enhance his reputation. Geng will have to be cast out following this, but Chen doesn’t seem bothered by this fact.
As the double crossings build up and Chen faces troubles and moral dilemmas from all sides though, his plan begins to crumble around him. Central to these problems is Madame Zou (Wenli Jiang), who is attempting to take control of the entire martial arts community in Tianjin.
If this all sounds a bit complicated you’d be right. My description above only scratches the surface of the narrative web Haofeng weaves here. It all got a bit much for me to be honest and I often found myself lost as to who was double crossing who and why I should care. This brings forth the major problem I had with the film. I just didn’t care about anything going on.
The fight scenes are technically sensational. Fluidly choreographed and fast paced, they’re exciting to watch and there are plenty of them throughout the film. However, in not always knowing or caring why the fight is taking place or who you want to win, there isn’t enough drama to back the action up. This is vital to creating a truly satisfying martial arts film.
The film is very stylish. It’s nicely shot, the production design is impressive and the fight scenes are slickly directed. However, this style once again comes at the expense of the drama. Everything’s all a bit cool and detached, including the characters themselves, so it lacks the heart and soul needed to truly engage.
So overall, it’s slick and attractive-looking, yet too confusing and cool to truly fall for. It contains plenty of top-notch action sequences, but lacks the drama to let you care much for what is being fought for. As such, it’s a frustrating watch as there’s much to admire, but ultimately these elements are let down. Still, it’s worth a watch if you’re a martial arts fan.
The Final Master is out on 19th February on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download, released by Cine Asia. I watched the Blu-Ray version and the picture and sound quality is top notch. There are a few short featurettes included on the Blu-Ray too.