Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Final Master: Trying to Keep Wing Chun Down

In martial arts, masters and apprentices should keep faith with each other, but they absolutely, positively must always stay true to their discipline. For a Wing Chun master from the south, this means he must assure the great school of martial arts lives on after him, but Tianjin’s martial arts syndicate intends to freeze him out. Vested interests will face the elegant smack-downs delivered by the master and his disciple in Xu Haofeng’s The Final Master (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There are nineteen fully approved Kung Fu schools in Tianjin. If Chen Shi wants to open the twentieth, as per his late master’s dying wish, he must best eight of the establishment masters. Of course, that would be a piece of cake for Master Chen, but it is not as simple as that. Were he to show up the syndicate like that, he would be summarily banished from town. Fortunately, semi-retired Grandmaster Zheng Shanao has some sage advice. Groom an expendable disciple to fight his battles and get banished in his place. Geng Liangechen should be perfect for the job, because the street laborer has natural talent and an instinctive resentment of authority.

Everything seems to be going according to plan when Geng starts mowing down rival schools. However, Master Chen rather inconveniently finds himself caring about his fall guy disciple. Strangely enough, he is also developing real feelings for Zhao Guo Hui, a waitress with a checkered past, whom Master Chen married for her legit roots in Tianjin. Unfortunately, this also implies unforeseen weaknesses when the Tianjin masters start fighting dirty—and nobody fights dirtier than Madame Zou, the calculating chair of the syndicate.

If this sounds somewhat familiar, you might be remembering Xu’s earlier film, The Sword Identity, in which parochial martial arts authorities try to suppress an innovative sword designed by the nameless hero’s deceased master. In this case, the martial arts syndicate is acting in an even more cravenly protectionist, guild-like manner. However, we all should know Wing Chun will endure, thanks to the illustrious master Ip Man and his famous student, you-know-who, who blended it into his Jeet Kune Do concept.

Regardless, Liao Fan and Song Yang (from Sword Identity) are all kinds of fierce in their fight scenes as Master Chen and Geng, respectively. Although she forgoes any fighting, Jiang Wenli is still spectacularly villainous as Madame Zou. Her cold-blooded manner gives us the impression she really enjoys all the Machiavellian machinations. Song Jia’s Zhao develops some terrific hot-and-cold chemistry with Liao’s Master Chen, while Maidina adds even more poignancy as Geng’s potential love interest, the bookseller.

It is strange how muddled Xu’s narrative is, considering how assiduously he has been working and re-working these themes, having previously written the screenplay for Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster, as well as Sword Identity and the short story on which Final Master is based. Still, everything seems to make perfect sense whenever the characters are fighting, thanks to Xu’s gritty but undeniably cinematic action choreography.

Song has thus far only appeared in one film not helmed by Xu, but he seems primed to breakout big, while the surprising range displayed by Chinese television star (and Tianjin native) Jiang will most impress many fans. Thanks to them, the film is consistently entertaining, even when character motivations are somewhat obscure. Recommended for martial arts fans, The Final Master opens this Friday (6/3) in New York, at the AMC Empire and the Village East.