In interviews, Jackie Chan has admitted again and again that he prefers working in Hong Kong over America, he has stated that in his native Hong Kong the camera is an observer in any action scene, watching the events take place, allowing the performers to ply their artistry. Its a philosophy that he employs in the director’s chair and it’s a major reason why so many of his classics have endured. In America, the action is dictated by machine gun editing cutting from one movement to the next to the point that those who edit action movies have become a point of parody – the classic example being the 14 cuts it needed Liam Neeson to clear a fence in one of the Taken movies. The reason that I brought up is that the infection that has been popularised by the Hollywood machine has seeped into the Hong Action movies Jackie Chan loves so much and Xu Haofeng’s Final Master is the latest in a long line.
Outside of the big finish, much of the 100 minutes of Final Master is defined by quick cuts and an exaggerated pacing, a choice that gives the movie a decidedly American feel. The argument could be made that the fevered editing masks the lack of martial arts ability in the actor in question, Yang Song (Geng). Before that theory can gather any steam, there are bounteous examples to the contrary where non-martial artists have led similar movies for many a year without that becoming an issue, actors like Ching Wan Lau, Anthony Wong or this very movie’s lead, Fan Liao. It’s a baffling creative decision and an alienating one at that, especially when consideration is spent on the big finish which does everything right that those early scenes do wrong. The big fight scene that closes Haofeng’s Final Master may be repetitive but it is shot with patience and long cuts that allow those performers to truly showcase their skills. Let’s not lay the blame solely on the final master, over-editing has become endemic as the light of Hong Kong action cinema has faded.
Haofeng’s movie is an ambitious one. Like the Westerns which depicted the end of the old west, the final master takes place during the dying embers of an era of Chinese history where dojos and martial artists were declining and the modern military was becoming dominant in China. Nothing wrong with that, many movies have tracked the same issue be it Jet Li’s wonderful Once Upon a Time in China series or a glut from the Shaw Brothers archives. The issue here is scale. Whether in Jet Li’s movie or those produced by the Shaw Brothers, their scale is small. They tell stories of one man with such narrative devices like the final days of the martial artist wrapped around the stories of a small cast. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious. There is nothing wrong with zigging where genre convention demands you zag. However, with the Final Master, there is simply too much going on.
What is the final master? As he expresses in the promotional trailers that supplement this CineAsia release, historian, and chronicler, Haofeng Xu takes umbrage with martial arts movies that decide a fight with a punch – as he puts it, all fighters carried weapons. He is using this historical reality to tell the story of an aging martial artist who wants to set up school in Tianjin and save Wing Chun and to do so, the master, Chen Shi (Fan Liao) must train a disciple who has to challenge and beat 8 schools to be granted the right to set up his own school. A plan that sees politics and legacy become the chess piece in a power game of backstabbing and betrayal. Within that, the final master takes issue with the archaic rules and systems that ran through martial arts communities. Unfortunately, this comes with a severe amount of unfilled character baggage where we know or care little about the players involved, so by the time the movie calls for a big emotional denouement – it falls flat. Instead of an explosion of energy and adrenaline, Haofeng leaves the audience only with bloated and unfilled drama.
Despite being the weakest release of the reborn CineAsia there are saving graces. The choreography and graciousness displayed in the final 20 minutes provide solace. The big bad that permits this to happen is lost somewhere between the sober intent of the script and the silly history of the martial arts movie, which unfortunately mutates one of the key characters into something humdrum and inept. As a facilitator though she gives a stage for these martial arts masters to pay off the promise of the premise with the method and patience akin to King Hu’s Come Drink with Me or Wong Kar-Wai’s [the] Grandmaster with the lush production values of the latter. Unfortunately, that is too little far too late.