The Final Master (Shi Fu)

China (2015) Dir. Xu Haofeng

Classic martial arts films involve a simple storyline around which a vengeful hero kicks lots of butt, with only a passing insight to the philosophy of combat. Xu Haofeng – like Bruce Lee – is a martial artist, scholar, film critic, and author, keen to readdress this balance.

Set in 1932, Wing Chun master Chen Shi (Liao Fan) arrives in Tianjin, the hub of martial arts in China, hoping to open a Wing Chun school to fulfil the wish of his late master. To stay in the city, Chen must marry a local woman so he enters into a marriage of convenience with waitress Zhao Guohui (Song Jia) and sets up home.

Aging grandmaster Zheng Shan’ao (Chin Shih Chieh) tells Chen that Tianjin rules dictate a master can only open a school if he defeats fighters from eight other schools; but if he does this, he will be expelled anyway so the others save face. Therefore, Cheng trains a disciple to fight on his behalf, young coolie Geng (Song Yang). Once Geng wins his early fights, remaining masters, lead by Madame Zou (Jiang Wenli), conspire Chen’s downfall.

It sounds like a by the numbers plot dating back to the legend of Wong Fei Hung and the Shaw Brothers but in Xu Haofeng’s hands, it becomes a convoluted tale of intrigue involving a group of characters difficult to root for, operating under a set of venal codes twisted beyond recognition. If you can figure out who is zooming whom by the end, award yourself a gold star because I was lost.

Perhaps this isn’t much of a surprise given Xu was the co-writer on Wong Kar-Wai’s take on the Yip Man legend, The Grandmaster, another befuddling piece of storytelling, as well as the similarly erratic Monk Comes Down The Mountain. If Xu decided he should be the only one to adapt his novels into films, it seems either he must have picked up some bad habits from Wong Kar-Wai, or his novels are just as chaotic in their structure.

Like Monk, the story jumps all over the place as if random chapters from Xu’s original novel were included, causing time skips and similarly confusing gaps in the narrative. Because of this, character development is cursory for those afforded it while the nominal antagonists are assigned their malevolent roles with little to shape them going forward.

Wing Chun being the focus of Chen’s campaign incurs initial Yip Man comparisons as both sought to propagate this style of kung fu, but this is quickly dispelled through the noticeable lack of grace and humility Yip Man found in Chen. His intentions seem noble but after learning the rules of Tianjin, he is too willing to sacrifice Geng for his own glory.  

But with Chen’s philosophy rooted in Wing Chun needing to be shared for it to survive, maybe he had enough faith in Geng to take being expelled from Tianjin on the chin and set up a school elsewhere to teach the next generation of practitioners. Unfortunately, under the venal purview of Madame Zou, Chen learns of further twists to the plan forcing a re-evaluation of his priorities.

It seems progressive having a woman ruling the traditionally male dominated world of martial arts in 1930’s China, but it’s somewhat undermined by Zou’s androgynous appearance – short hair, wearing male influenced suit and trousers instead of dresses – which makes a change from being the token glammed up femme fatale but comes across as a heavy handed compromise for the sake of implied credibility.  

Elsewhere on the female front, Zhao is an outlier due to getting pregnant to a foreigner at aged 17, giving birth to a baby she was told was dead, so she remains a frosty and distant person, attracted only to the financial benefits of the marriage to Chen, but you can guess what happens there. Afforded less depth is the pretty girl running a teashop (Maidina) that Geng falls for, literally a convenient plot device.

What about the fights I hear you ask? Well for the majority of the film they infrequent and kept very short but do give a clear indication of Wing Chun’s effectiveness. Xu saves the best until last when Chen is forced to fight his way through an ally way blocked by the masters and students from Tianjin’s 19 schools in a series of concise, close range, tightly executed bouts that end with either a fatality or concessional defeat.

Eschewing CGI and wire work for the fights, relying on the sheer skill of the performers instead, this is an enlightening and impressive way to demonstrate the effectiveness, balletic mastery and philosophy of Wing Chun as a martial art. Chen even makes it look cool as he fends off multiple fighters with a pole whilst having a chat with his wife.  

The cast don’t let Xu down in bringing his characters to life, but under his direction they aren’t given much in the way of nuance or building on their designated roles, making their appeal to the audience tenuous at best. On the physical side, everyone is top notch with Liao Fan and Song Yang making Wing Chun look as smooth and deadly as any hard-hitting and more energetic martial art on film.

On reflection, the plot itself is undeniably fertile but the haphazard presentation from the choppy editing and uneven pacing to the clumsily introduced expansive cast list, negates this to the point of being reduced to more functional than integral. Most of the dialogue exchanges are either plot revelations or discussions on philosophy and conduct, only occasionally injecting exposition at incongruous junctures.

Xu has an eye for visuals as this handsome production demonstrates, but he needs to learn when to be obtuse and when to keep it simple, also applying to his disjointed scripting. The Final Master will undoubtedly polarise opinion, received as either being wonderfully bold or annoyingly underperforming. For this writer, it is unfortunately the latter.