Back when it first aired at Fantasia in 2012, Xu Haofeng’s first film, The Sword Identity, left audiences with an exciting feeling that they’d just seen something new, something fresh, something that shook up the formula. Haofeng’s idiosyncratic style, at once understated and stylistically ambitious, felt like a wonderful new perspective on the Wuxia genre, and his clear love of all things Wuxia felt infused into every frame. The notion that the author-turned-filmmaker was someone to watch in the field of martial arts dramas continued to grow when his second feature, Judge Archer, played last year at Fantasia’s 2016 installment. Continuing the pattern, Haofeng’s The Final Master is playing at this year’s Fantasia Festival, and once again it stands as a testament to his skill and dedication as a filmmaker. However, his third directorial effort has cemented another notion, one that anyone interested in Haofeng’s work – or kung-fu and Wuxia movies in general – should bear in mind.
Haofeng’s films operate on a very particular wavelength, one influenced by both his clear passion for Wuxia fiction and his background as a writer within the genre. This means that his films will delight fans of the genre as surely as they will confound people who are relatively new to this kind of thing. Haofeng makes densely packed, often incredibly complex films with a very particular atmosphere and vibe, so much so that they could easily come off as impenetrable. Even seasoned Wuxia fans may find themselves challenged by his elaborate plots and hyper-formalized style. If you’re up to the challenge, a Haofeng film is absolutely worth a watch, but bear in mind that these aren’t movies you might use to introduce someone to Wuxia; this isn’t meant as a knock against Haofeng or newcomers to the Wuxia genre, just a warning that his specificity and passion can make his films overwhelming and difficult to get a handle on. This is certainly true of The Final Master.
In the years leading up to World War II, the last practitioner of Win-Chun style Kung Fu is desperate to pass on his art. To this end, he concocts a plan to open up a martial arts school by training a local laborer to the point that he can challenge the local masters. If his disciple is able to defeat at least half of the grand masters, he’ll win the right to open his school and preserve his legacy. However, this is easier said than done, less because of his new pupil’s aptitude and more because of the web of intrigue and betrayal he finds himself tangled in upon beginning his quest.
The Final Master is packed to the brim with characters, subplots, double-crosses, and even triple-crosses, something doubtlessly carried over (and probably abbreviated) from Haofeng’s original novel. Much like Judge Archer, the experience of watching can be a perplexing one if you get lost in its web-like structure of relationships, rivalries, and plots. The film also has a lot to say about the martial arts world, the historical context of pre-WWII China, and the rise of militarism. It’s spinning a lot of plates at once, but manages to keep them all in the air rather deftly, although there are certainly points in the running time where it can drag a bit or become slightly too busy in the narrative for its own good.
The Final Master also can often come across as rather emotionally distant, as its stoic characters rarely let emotion breach the surface. This is something else that could potentially alienate viewers not used to Haofeng’s style, as like with his fight scenes, depiction of emotion is often understated, defined by small but pivotal gestures rather than grand, sweeping movements.
However, when the intrigue and drama melt onto the back in favor of fight scenes, things get considerably less daunting. As far back as The Sword Identity Haofeng has had a very particular and elegant style when it comes to fight scenes, and that remains true for his third feature. The action sequences in The Final Master are quite something, understated and almost balletic in their execution. Rather distracting from the battling with fancy camera work and rapid-fire editing, Haofeng presents everything cleanly and efficiently, ensuring that the actors’ physical performances remain front and center. The highlight is unquestionably the dazzling final fight sequence that beautifully demonstrates Haofeng’s skills as a director as well as the prowess of his star, Liao Fan. It’s clear from watching these sequences that Haofeng has a deep love of the martial arts, and a desire to depict them on screen in such a way that balances drama and excitement with realism. These aren’t the epic, high-flying fight scenes of a Tsui Hark or Yuen Wo-Ping film, but rather intimate duels that emphasize skill and physicality over spectacle.
Simply put, Xu Haofeng’s martial arts movies aren’t for everyone. They’re an acquired taste, something for people who demand a very specific kind of kung-fu movie, especially one high on complexity, formalism, and intrigue. If you find his films distant, alienating, confusing, that’s honestly understandable. Haofeng makes the kinds of movies he wants to see; he’s beholden to a personal vision of what martial arts movies ought to be, and you may simply not share that vision. Still, if Haofeng’s brand of kung-fu drama falls within your wheelhouse, The Final Master should leave you as satisfied as his previous efforts, and eager to see what he has in store next.
- Thomas O’Connor
FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL • JULY 13 – AUGUST 2, 2017