EXPECTATIONS: A martial arts movie that is just as dry and satirical as Xu Haofeng’s previous films.
REVIEW: Director Xu Haofeng is one uniquely enigmatic person, if his film-making works are any indication. Being a multi-talent of an established author, martial artist, film editor and director, he has certainly made his name a mark in the film industry and he has directed two martial arts films (The Sword Identity and Judge Archer) that were seen as polarizing for general audiences as well as critics. Known for their dry and static approach in opposition to wuxia tropes, it does have its admirers and now Xu has directed his third film called The Master (also known as The Final Master in the US). Having a more established leading man as the lead as well as the biggest budget compared to his prior films, has Xu Haofeng finally toned down his film-making tendencies for audience appeal? As well as my own?
The film follows the journey of the Wing Chun practitioner Master Chen (Liao Fan). His pledge to his dying master is to fulfill his wish of opening a martial arts school in Tianjin, the center of focus for Chinese martial arts at that time. In order to achieve this, he has to send an apprentice Geng Liangchen (Song Yang) to challenge and defeat eight other martial arts schools. Yet, he becomes a pawn to the local power figures led by Master Zou (Jiang Wenli), placing his wife Zhao Guohui (Song Jia) and apprentice in danger. In the end, he must choose between what is right and fulfilling his master’s wish.
The synopsis sounds really simple but boy, it sure as hell doesn’t play that way. Like Xu’s previous films, he insistently refuses to pay attention to character development, the dialogue, even the storytelling, and it is all to for the point of turning genre tropes (in this case, the wuxia genre) upside down. The storytelling is needlessly convoluted due to its copious amounts of double-crossing, undeveloped characters who come and go without rhyme or reason and the lack of style in its plot progression. The characters are almost complete ciphers with no character development or even interesting backstories. There’s a scene in the movie where Master Chen fights a bunch of thugs with a bamboo stick while he shares his life story to Guohui. This could have been a compelling scene that combines thrilling fight choreography and character development with a sense of amusing genre deconstruction, but the end result is clumsy, dull and sometimes laughable. The cinematography is more vibrant than Xu’s previous films (probably due to budget than film-making intention), but the tone of the film is sterile and clinical, without a sense of passion or even interest. But what kills the mood or any sense of thrill is the musical score by An Wei. It is irritatingly post-modern and it even comes off as repetitive. Director Xu was a co-writer for Wong Kar-wai’s martial arts opus, The Grandmaster, and if The Final Master had any sense of passion that The Grandmaster had, I bet it would be a much better film.
About the main course of the film which is the fight scenes, the choreography is smooth and fluid and the use of weaponry is quite impressive, but the problem is when the audience witnesses a very confusing plot and undeveloped characters; there is no emotional attachment to the film, making the fight scenes dull and repetitious. Even worse, the climax leads to a sequel-bait ending that feels unearned. As for the actors, they all try to bring life to their characters and some of them actually do. Liao Fan, who played the inept detective in Black Coal, Thin Ice, does quite well with the martial arts choreography and almost cuts a compelling figure in Master Chen but the script does him no favours. Ditto for Song Jia, who has no chemistry with Liao and ends up being nothing. Song Yang, who is a regular for director Xu, is amusing as the eager apprentice while Jiang Wenli valiantly tries to have fun and be menacing as the vilain, but again, the script does her no favours. Ditto for the rest of the cast like acting veteran Chi Shi-chieh and especially Maidina, who is just stuck in a flower vase role and nothing more.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any positives to say about the film, because there are few, mostly in terms of its sense of humour. There are scenes that, like in Xu’s previous films, poke fun of tropes in the wuxia genre, or even action films in general. Like the scene I mentioned earlier, although I criticized the scene from a film-making standpoint, it can be seen as a satirical jab on mediocre action movies today i.e action scene, character development, action scene, character development, action scene and two leads get together, the end. The scene encapsulates the structure of those mediocrities and it comes off as funny. Even the climactic payoff of that scene involves the opponent running away in an amusing fashion; it had to have been satirical but you be the judge.
Other amusing moments involve the portrayal of foreigners. Almost every China film production that involves foreigners, xenophobia is involved. But in the case of The Final Master, they are still a powerful force, but they are apparently so powerful that the Chinese might as well join them in their ways. While the villains adopt their ways in terms of costuming, one particular character amusingly wears a sombrero. That sight gag along made me chuckle quite a bit. Even more amusing, a picture of Richard Valentino is used as a plot device. It is as funny as it sounds. There are also scenes of philosophical insight that are quite involving like the first scene showing that evading attacks can be slower than the attack itself and even then, director Xu turns scenes like them on its head with a scene involving bread that subtly parodies a scene from The Grandmaster.
But a handful of amusing moments and ideas do not coalesce together to make a satisfying film experience. The sardonic edge that director Xu adopts in his previous films is still here, but it has been dulled due to the film’s more commercial aspirations and it is obvious that there has been a struggle in what the film wants to be so we end with the film be unable to be good at both sides of the spectrum. Xu Haofeng may have an original eye but he desperately needs a collaborator that can help convey his ideas in a much more enjoyably cinematic fashion. Hopefully his next movie, he can do this but in the meantime, The Final Master is a colossal bore.
P.S – I just realized that one of Xu Haofeng’s novels was adapted by director Chen Kaige to become Monk That Comes Down The Mountain. Having seen it beforehand, I can see why Xu would want to take creative control of his film adaptations.
Some amusing satirical jabs on action film-making and wuxia tropes
Fight choreography is fluid and intricate
Actors do what they can with their one-dimensional “characters”
Storytelling is convoluted and confusing
The tone of the film is dry and lacks any emotional investment in the drama, even the fight scenes
The music is incredibly out-of-place and ruins the mood
Ends on a unearned sequel-bait conclusion
Cast: Liao Fan, Jiang Wenli, Chin Shi-chieh, Song Jia, Song Yang, Huang Jue, Maidina, Ma Jun, Chen Kuen-tai
Director: Xu Haofeng
Screenwriters: Xu Haofeng, based on his own novel