Director: Xu Haofeng
Writer: Xu Haofeng
Cast: Fan Liao, Xiao Song Jia, Jiang Wenli, Huang Jue, Jin Shijie, Zhang Aoyue, Song Yang, Dong Xiaosong, Madina Memet, Leon Dai, Chen Kuan-tai, Xiong Xin-Xin
Running Time: 109 min.
By Martin Sandison
Now that the old guard of Hong Kong martial arts stars are getting on in age, the eyes of the kung fu movie-loving public have turned to Mainland China. With big money behind productions, some new talent – as well as a different approach to action choreography – right now may be the time for Mainland films to flourish.
This brings us to Xu Haofeng’s The Master (aka The Final Master), a film that I heard a lot about before finally seeing it at The Far East Film Festival.
The story, while a little contrived from the outset, is classic old school stuff. It concerns Chen (Fan Liao), a master of Wing Chun from the South who arrives in Tianjin in the early 20th century to set up a school. The beginning of the film is simple: Chen must defeat eight masters from different schools to be able to set up his own academy; but as the film progresses, the story becomes more interesting and complex. Chen gets involved with a beautiful waitress Zhao (Jia Song) and takes on a student Gen (Yang Song), while the various masters collude to bring Chen down.
The approach to The Master’s aesthetic is what marks The Master as something unique; it takes an existing kung fu movie, tropes and twists it into something almost surreal and extra diverting. Characters are not chivalrous, heroic or evil; they merely have their own motivations and interact accordingly.
The look of the The Master are reminiscent of Shaw Brothers 80’s flicks, especially with coloring and set design. The budget of the film shows in its crane shots, elaborate camerawork, period detail and high-standard costume design. With this base, director/writer Xu Haofeng creates a dark and thematically heavy film that does not celebrate, but rather berates the Martial World, which is usually lauded in most kung fu films. This is put forth with intelligence rather than extremity; there is not much blood or killing in the film, rather a dependence on martial arts technique and an unusual way of depicting fight scenes.
Together with its weight of intellect and spiritual undercurrents, The Master conveys a fresh feeling that permeates each frame of the film. I have the utmost respect for Xu Haofeng’s vision. As his third film as director, The Master is his biggest in scope (his last film, The Sword Identity, made waves with its new approach to the wuxia genre).
The Master’s cast are all established actors, with the lead Fan Liao having previously had stand out roles in Let the Bullets Fly and Black Coal, Thin Ice. Main actress Jia Song recently appeared in Sammo Hung’s The Bodyguard. Every talent in the film quits themselves well, which is evident in the wiggle room given for character development, as well as humorous moments.
However, where the film falters for me is during the fight sequences. There are many action scenes in The Master featuring open hand and weapons fighting. The filmmaker’s vision was to have a more realistic style than most viewers are used to. The way the combat is shot and staged is at a high level: good framing, editing and execution. There’s no doubt that the choreographers – and editors – must be applauded for this (their approach definitely bodes well for future productions). The problem for me is that I was never that excited by the action. In some of the best examples of Hong Kong martial arts movies, there is an intricacy to all aspects of filmmaking that make me completely immersed in that universe. They create a kind of awestruck consciousness that I can’t find with much else in life. Unfortunately, The Master, by virtue of its realistic approach, does not tap into this for me. It’s such a shame because everything else about the film is top notch.
One interesting aspect of the action is that it’s at times humorous, in a very surreal way. Such as at the end where Chen takes on an alleyway full of old masters, with each given a sprain, break and/or scuttling off after amusing reaction shots.
Near the end of the film, the masters are about to sit down and watch The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, considered by many to be the film that began audiences love of the martial arts genre. An ambitious reference to make, The Master pulls it off despite some shortcomings.
Martin Sandison’s Rating: 7/10