A difficult film to unpack, but that final battle though
In order to realize his dream of opening a kung fu school in the city of Tianjin, Wing Chun practitioner Master Chen realizes he must navigate the complex political-social landscape of unwritten rules and competing criminal and martial arts factions. That means, among many other things, taking a wife and training a local student.
The Final Master is a film by Xu Haofeng, who has directed a couple other things but is most renowned as the writer of Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster. Like that film, its approach to storytelling has more of an “artsy” bent than is typical of martial arts films.
Chen is a complex and difficult character. As the last master practitioner of Wing Chun, it’s his sacred duty to keep the form alive and pass on his secrets to the next generation. But to that end, he manipulates and uses other people as pawns — including his wife and student — in service to his one and only goal.
The romantic subplot, inasmuch as it can be called that, is a strange one. The marriage of Chen and Zhao is strictly an arrangement of mutual convenience, but it’s also clear that the pair grow to care for each other — it’s not a portrait of passion, but one at least of affection. So much of their relationship is told through body language and subtext that two viewers could easily walk away from the film having completely different opinions of their love for each other.
I had a bit of a hard time keeping up with this film, but the third act ensures that this will be a martial arts classic. Even if you can’t really get behind the meandering narrative, the film’s armed combat is incredible. I have a huge affection for martial arts films that focus on interesting weapons, and The Final Master delivers on that in a huge way. Throughout the film, Chen and his protege use various weaponry, from close combat with push-daggers to sweeping through waves of enemies with a longpole, to combat training with intriguing-looking sparring machinery.
But nowhere is this this love of weaponry more apparent than in the final showdown, an incredible sequence for the ages. Chen is cornered into an alley where he fights off wave after wave of challengers from various martial arts factions bearing different arms — spears, axes, and swords of all shapes and sizes — working his way to three blademasters whose intimidating war swords can perhaps only be described as “Final Fantasy VII” sized.
The immense coolness of the film’s final battle goes a long way toward compensating for the slow and complex narrative, and unlike most self-serious martial arts films, this is one I want to revisit and try to further unwind and better appreciate.
The Final Master was released on Blu-ray by Well Go USA on July 25.
Special Features and Extras
Chinese Weaponry (3:26)
Highlighting what’s easily the coolest aspect of the film, this is a very welcome featurette and I only wish it was longer or more in-depth.
Director Xu Haofeng (2:37)
A brief profile of the director and his vision for The Final Master.
Theatrical Trailer (1:38)
Promotional trailers for Railroad Tigers (1:17), God Of War (1:45), and Game Changer (2:05)
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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have slight compression inherent to file formats. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.