Martial arts flicks have long relied on a furious, fist-blurring combat aesthetic delivered by characters with quasi-superhuman strength and agility. Enjoyable as this can be, the creeping unreality of the enterprise disenfranchises large swathes of the viewing public who prefer fight scenes to have at least a passing acquaintance with laws of physics. In this respect, 2015’s The Final Master, a historical fight epic set in pre-WWII China, is a somewhat different sack of knives, bringing the kinetic thrills of Kung Fu to the screen without recourse to silly acrobatics or giant geysers of raspberry cordial blood.
When we say Kung Fu, we should be more specific because writer/director/fight choreographer Xu Haofeng (who co-wrote the similarly-structured 2013 Brue Lee origins flick The Grandmaster) takes as his subject the traditional Southern Chinese variant of Wing Chun, a close-combat style that uses reflexive body-balance and energy transmission techniques rather than brute force. You may have seen Wing Chun exponents practising their moves on your local beach and mistaken them for Tai Chi softies (word of advice: approach with extreme caution – they are very good with knives).
The story centres on Chen (Liao Fan), last of the Wing Chun masters, who wants to save his beloved discipline from extinction by establishing a fight school in the bustling, semi-westernised Chinese city of Tianjin, brought vividly to life here courtesy of some exquisite art direction and sun-bleached cinematography. It’s no easy task of course; to get their Wing Chun show on the road, Chen and his goofy young apprentice Geng (Yang Song, playing a sort of ‘Keye’ Luke Skywalker) must face down the strutting champions of the city’s eight top fight schools, all of whom violently oppose the idea of a nearly-dead version of Kung Fu muddying their modern form. But have any of these local champions been brushing up their Wing Chun to give themselves a decent chance in the epic, CGI-free throw-downs that follow? Have they hùnzhàng. If director Haofeng intended the elemental power and mystery of Wing Chun to be the real star of the show, he’s succeeded.
Liao Fan’s Jedi-style flame-keeper encounters a variety of colourful allies and opponents along the way, but the various power-plays soon start piling up in a muddled script that doesn’t unfurl half as elegantly as the fights themselves; in fact, come the final act, we’d abandoned keeping up with the various character machinations and retreated into Game of Thrones-mode, allowing the playfully barbed dialogue exchanges and verisimilitude of the film’s heroic structure to carry us over the lumpy stuff like a friendly dragon. But the fights really are something, cleanly shot without flashy edits so you know you’re getting the real deal, aided by an array of traditional weapons – butterfly knives, close-range push knives, all manner of swords and more large poles than you can, er, shake a stick at – wielded with balletic grace and fearsome precision by the very capable cast.
In other words, fight fans, confusing it may be, boring it isn’t.
EXTRAS: Three short featurettes: The Director / The Weaponry / Production Overview
THE FINAL MASTER / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: HAOFENG XU / STARRING: FAN LIAO, JIA SONG, WENLI JIANG, SHIH-CHIEH KING / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW