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THE FINAL MASTER is a Supreme Display of Martial Arts and Filmmaking Skill (Fantasia Review)

THE FINAL MASTER is a Supreme Display of Martial Arts and Filmmaking Skill (Fantasia Review)

From its very first scene, Xu Haofeng’s The Final Master establishes itself as a fast-fisted, quick-witted story set in the lush antiquity of 1930s Tianjin. It’s a display not only of a wide range of martial arts styles and weapon mastery, but also of storytelling, production design and style.

The Grandmaster (King Shih-Chieh) is retiring soon and wants to secure a legacy, so he agrees to advise a Wing Chun master Chen (Liao Fan) who wants to open a school to see Wing Chun flourish. If you’ve seen even one martial arts movie, you already know what he’s got to do: defeat eight established schools to secure a place at the table.

There’s a hitch, though. As an outsider, he needs to find a local apprentice to fight for him.

Chen marries a waitress named Zhao (Song Jia) and finds a student in the devil-may-care laborer Geng Liangchen (Song Yang), who inserts himself into their lives while trying to hit on The Master’s new bride. He proves to be a prodigy, and bodies soon start hitting the mat, but they all become entangled in local politics that have greater concerns than whether an outsider gets to open a martial arts academy.

The fights in The Final Master are at the highest level of choreography and execution. A fantastic, astonishing display of fast, clean combat married with clear-eyed cinematography from Wang Tianlin, letting us appreciate the full scope of each fight. Patient editing by Xu and He Sisi lets each bout breathe and gets flashy only to heighten the impact of the many, many, many blows. They’re percussive and balletic and absolutely thrilling.

They also utilize a dizzying range of weapons, anchored by The Master’s favored butterfly swords and ranging from bamboo poles to halberds to tomahawks to blades as tall and wide as the men wielding them. Laio proves more than capable of showing us what it means to be the best fighter, taking out scores of attackers, sometimes with a puppy in one hand. Yes, The Master fights a group of men while holding a puppy. Yes, it is insanely awesome. And cute.

The Final Master also has a wry sense of humor that runs throughout its dialogue, its battles, and the romance between The Master and Zhao. Laio and Song Jia’s chemistry is the stuff of classic Hollywood. Their sarcasm and antagonism toward one another hides a genuine tenderness beneath the surface. After looking longingly at his initial proposal, Zhao flippantly rebukes him with an eye roll and a mic-drop one-liner, but while their marriage is initially one of mutual social convenience, they quickly develop a tandem affection.

Yet their romance is one spoke on a gorgeously balanced wheel. The wit hits as hard as its fists, creating an extraordinary movie that sticks the landing on its romance, humor, drama, and action. The rare complete package.

We get to unwrap that package inside an open, internationally-curious China in which Art Deco modernity collides with the Dynastic opulence of the past. From a bowling alley where young boys return your ball and rest your pins, to the streets where cars roll alongside horse carriages, this is a Tianjin bursting with privileged culture and dusty day laborers. There are Belorussian dangers, French pastries, and dreams of Brazilian chocolate. All of it is wonderfully vivid enough to transport you completely into the past.

The Final Master 1

There’s also a cool, vibe-y score from An Wei that uses horns and a Hammond organ to create a modern counterpart to the period setting. It also offers The Master and his student a chance to look ridiculously badass after beating down bad guys.

Despite its standardized set up, The Final Master thankfully doesn’t follow a typical path. There are more stories to juggle than The Master’s school aspirations, so the extended, 8-school tournament of the high concept doesn’t doom the film to ping pong between training sequences and formal fights. Instead, Geng’s victories over the local school champions are shown as brief, sharp displays of his prowess. Like Liao, Song Fang is game to show off his Kung Fu finesse.

In fact, every actor does excellent work. The charismatic Jiang Wenli is a VIP as the sly, assured Master Zou, who has her hand on pieces across the chessboard. Her cool-headed command is a pleasant breeze flowing through The Final Master even though she wants to see our flawed hero killed or run out of town.

The film stumbles only slightly as it attempts to draw its stories of local intrigue and personal interest together, but it’s forgivable given the intensity of the climax which puts The Master on the wrong side of an entire town with 19 separate martial arts schools. Or, rather, in an alleyway blocked off by 19 separate martial arts schools. No biggie.

The Final Master is an exceptionally good action flick. Kung Fu at its absolute finest with a classic story and solid performances to boot.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 butterfly burritos


Images: Heyi Pictures

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