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PostPosted: Thu Jun 02, 2016 10:20 am 
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LIAO FAN IN THE FINAL MASTER

A brilliant martial arts epic with a pared down feel

The subject matter of Xu Haofeng's brilliant and well-made new martial arts film The Final Master is closely related to Wong Kar-wai's recent Ip Man biopic The Grandmaster, but declares itself as a wittier, lighter, and more accessible film from the first few frames. Xu wrote the screenplay for The Grandmaster and recently wrote for Chen Kaige; he seems to be enjoying his freer rein here. L.P. Hugo, whose review in Asian Film Strike is the best informed and best written piece on this film I've come across, describes Xu as a "Wu Xia author, martial artist, film critic, Taoist scholar and film director." He sees Xu's style as clipped and efficient like that of David Mamet (who made his own martial arts movie, Redbelt), "a kind of sardonic realism, stripped of all sentimentality and with narrative signposts reduced to a bare minimum."

The film is plenty complicated, but its style is pared down, bracing, free of that need to be epic, brooding and beautiful that has seemed to weigh down Wong Kar-wai's latest, increasingly elaborate, films. And we need this, because the task of The Final Master's protagonist is going to be heavy enough in itself. He will have to defeat eight martial arts schools in the city of Tianjin in order to qualify to establish one of his own there, but do so without so offending local pride as to be banished. As we will gradually learn, this will require some dangerous and morally dubious subterfuges.

Shi Chen (Liao Fan), "the Master," is an exponent of the Wing Chen school, as is Ip Man (played by Tony Leung) in Wong's film, and his story begins in 1936, as does The Grandmaster's. Or perhaps we should just say the Thirties, since there are no precise historical markers other than cars and costumes. He comes from Canton in the south to bring the art north to Tienjin.

Early on, Chen marries a disgraced but beautiful young waitress in Tienjin, Zhao Guihui (Song Jia) and lives in a slum to maintain a low profile. Their relationship is cold and practical, at first anyway, and offhand. She's there to share a crab feast - crabs are "cheaper than rice" in Tienjin - after he has first dramatically defeated his apprentice - an example of the casual irony of the film.

The martial arts master of the town, who will be both Chen's ally and his adversary, explains the rule about having somebody else defeat the schools for him who's willing to be banished and offers to be that person himself, as one farewell grand gesture. But it doesn't happen that way.

Chen does fight on his own as well as teach. (In fact the disciple turns out to be so talented and the training room so elaborately set up that he winds up largely teaching himself.) In one casual virtuoso scene, we see Chen demolish a dozen thugs without even getting up from the table, while having an intimate conversation with his wife with whom he's dining out of doors (always on crab). The old master is called Zheng (Chin Shih-Chieh), and the disciple Chen finds, an iron-willed young coolie, is Geng (Song Yang). Both are vivid and colorful characters. Geng at first only seems to be accepting Chen's teaching so he can ogle his wife. Zheng, with his cigars, his varied outfits, and his smug smiles, is full of stories and attitude.

Chinese martial arts films may be primarily for connoisseurs and dedicated fans and specialists but any film lover can enjoy the best of them, like this one, simply as films, for their rich mise-en-scène, cinematography, and editing and for the moments of human interest. I enjoy the Thirties China atmosphere; the men's neat high-collared robes and jaunty short-brimmed European hats; the clean, satisfying sound of steel against steel (knives and swords and "butterfly blades" abound, though local tradition forbids their use in street fights). I appreciate the restraint of the fighting, intricate and specific but eschewing all trickery or wires. I like the curious wiry accessory Zhao Guihui, Chen's wife, attaches to her finger to hold a cigarette when she smokes one, suspended several inches above her hand. "Everyone has a bad habit," she says. Is it to keep her fingers from smelling of nicotine, or just an example of the film's deep delight in ornate, period paraphernalia?

As the plot unfolds, things become complicated and ironic. As L.P. Hugo puts it, "Xu Haofeng’s take on the martial arts world is a truly sardonic, almost absurdist one: a jungle of codification -most of the film’s dialogues are about discussing rules and etiquette." Despite Chen's effort to establish the great Tienjin martial arts school that he goes through such elaborate gyrations to win the right to, we never see it happen. The promised, dreaded banishment of his disciple Geng, whom he, and we, have grown to care about, is a moving passage, harrowing, really.

There is a knowledgeable discussion of this film in the Shanghai Global Times that lays down the outline of the story simply and clearly. As the Global Times writer comments, the young actor Song Yang who plays Geng "perfectly delivers the character's multiple faces - devotion and diligence, sexual charm, cockiness, lonesomeness, and eventually a profound attachment to his homeland." When he departs the scene, we feel the loss and with it we realize what an immense and morally complex task Chen has undertaken. It takes years.

Zheng's own powerful disciple, Lin Xiwen (Huang Jue), also a ranking military officer, eventually comes into play and greatly complicates the path Chen will follow, and we realize he is indeed a pawn in a power game whose desire to save the Wing Chen style of fighting may be doomed. Another writer describes The Last Master as a giant three-dimensional game of go.

But of course rich as the story and the details of the telling are, it's the fighting that's the thing. The last long display of martial arts craft is staged in a long narrow-walled lane. There Chen combats, and defeats, a dozen masters, each armed with a surprising variety of medieval-looking knives, swords, lances, and gnarly indescribables. At one end, they are watched over gleefully by the other, increasingly ubiquitous power figure, in charge of the city's martial arts syndicate. It's a lady, Mrs Zou (Jiang Wenli, herself a native of Tienjin), widow of a great fighter. She is woven gradually more and more into the film and assumes a growing role, her round face, close-cropped hair, and cheshire cat smile reappearing like a mockery. She is dressed in a succession of mannish Thirties outfits and there may be the hint of a lesbian about her. But she's a lady nonetheless, and seemingly the final arbiter of it all. Meanwhile there is complicated business between Chen, his wife Zhao Guohui, and a constantly reappearing little dog (unnamed); a small suitcase full of pearls constituting Chen's savings from an earlier career at sea; and an argument about whether, if Chen goes back to Canton where he came from, she will join him, or remain in the city her family has lived in for four generations which would make leaving it a humiliation. Stay tuned.

The Last Master is based on Xu's own bestselling novel, and he did the prize-winning fight choreography as well as directed this enjoyable film.

The Last Master/Shih Fu/師父, 109 mins mins., debuted Dec. 2015 at Taipei, wining Best Choreography, with two other nominations, and showed at several other festivals. Its limited US release begins 3 June 2016.

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XU (LEFT) DIRECTING A FIGHT SCENE

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