The nice thing about martial arts movies is that you don’t have to understand them to recommend them.
Not that The Final Master is some kind of incomprehensible mess or anything. But it takes a significant amount of time to understand that the details of the story, and a slightly longer time to realize that none of it really matters.
There are protagonists and antagonists. And most of them get beat up.
Really, a story you can follow is just icing on the cake.
I say “protagonists and antagonists” instead of “good guys and bad guys,” because this is a morally complex work. Nobody comes to the table with clean hands, and everybody has their reasons. The story takes place in the city of Tianjin in the early 1930s, where aging aristocrat Chen (Liao Fan) arrives from Canton to open a school and preserve the legacy of Wing Chun. But Tianjin is a very enclosed community, and an outsider is forbidden from opening a school. He must choose a local apprentice, who must defeat at least nine of the fifteen martial arts schools in order to prove his master’s worth. Chen chooses local merchant Geng (Song Yang) to represent him, and there is much fighting.
From here, one might assume that the story involves kung fu prodigy Geng taking on each of the masters one by one, culminating in a battle with the titular final master. But the aims of the film are a bit more ambitious than that, as politicking proves to be far more important than martial skill, and a series of deals and betrayals threatens to destroy everything Chen and Geng are working towards.
The press notes reveal that this is adapted from a novella written by the director himself, Xu Haofang, which makes sense: there’s something very literary in the way the film carries itself. It’s a film of empty spaces, spaces it’s easy to imagine were filled in with prose in the novel itself. But in adapting it to the screen, Haofang chose to externalize the details, making the history and subtext that could more easily be explained in words manifest in the faces and actions of its characters.
It’s a technique that leads to some initial confusion (no character names are used for the first thirty minutes of the film, and rare is the character whose name is mentioned more than once, if at all), but gives the film its own unique gravity.
The characters themselves seem literary creations as well, all drawn with a depth and complexity in the writing somewhat uncommon in martial arts films. With the exception of young, callow Geng and his sort of love interest (dubbed only as Tea Girl in the end credits), everyone here is closer to their end than their beginning, and they all know it. Whatever ideals and principles they once possessed have been worn away by a lifetime of compromise and disappointment.
With the times changing quickly, there’s little left for most of the old guard to do but secure their legacy or try to hang on to tradition in an uncaring world. What little dreams and ambitions they have left won’t take them any further than the gates of their own city, a place that instills its residents with a sense of local pride that has curdled into something tragic and admirable in equal measures.
In some ways, this is a theme best represented by Song Jia as Zhao, the disgraced local Chen takes as a bride. Their relationship is a pragmatic business transaction more than anything, and its slow evolution into something approaching actual love is hard fought, if in the end not entirely earned.
All this is not to say that the film is without a sense of humor. Despite the melancholy tone, the film maintains a ruefully funny spirit about it, from the increasingly ludicrous series of hats Master Chen and Zheng wear (it starts with Chen’s pith helmet and only gets more amazing from there) to the wry performance by Jiang Wenli as Zou, the only female master in Tianjin, who dresses in a series of immaculate suits and oversees the dealings of the various houses with a scene stealing sense of self-amused style.
But enough talk of narrative matters; the only thing that matters in a martial arts movie is, y’ know… the martial arts.
So, how are those, then?
…well; they are definitely something else, I’ll give them that.
Fans used to the brutal, bloody excesses of modern martial arts films, or the graceful dancelike choreography of past era kung fu films are both in for a surprise; this is a very different, almost alien take on combat.
The codes and customs of the houses as established in this film have the unmistakable aura of ritual about them; these aren’t the showy endurance tests for its combatants that we’d expect, but a series of efficient moves and countermoves that unfold in the blink of an eye.
It’s less of a dance and more a game of speed chess, culminating in a series of showdowns in a narrow alley that stands as one of the riveting conclusions of any action movie I’ve seen lately, foreign or domestic. It’s good enough if you were to just watch it as a clip on YouTube, but after 90 minutes of skill and honor being sacrificed on the altar of compromise and ambition, it’s electric, totally badass, AND emotionally cathartic, which is what we like the call the ‘Kung Fu Hat Trick’.
As something of a lapsed fan of martial arts cinema, I found The Final Master to be a unique and refreshing experience. It’s not a perfect film (the obtuseness of the first act is needlessly disorienting and the minimalist music score is kind of off-putting), but for fans of punching and knife fighting (SO MUCH KNIFE FIGHTING YOU GUYS), it’s well worth watching.