It’s a difficult time for the kung fu film. The great masters are retiring, getting really, really tired, or dying. Ever since the British lease on Hong Kong expired in 1997, mother China has been tightening its strangle-hold on Hong Kong cinema, while slowly opening its arms to Hollywood – an insidious double whammy that inexorably drags kung fu into the mixed(up) martial arts octagon.
By the way, martial arts (“wushu”) is 99% fist, muscle, and anger-driven fighting. True kung fu (which translates to “human achievement” or “good work”), contrary to popular belief, is 99% open-hand, open mind, inner energy (chi), and empathy-driven martial and healing applications. The rest is money and ego.
So when a new filmmaker appears who can somehow survive the Chinese gauntlet of Government restrictions and actually has something special and challenging to say in a very abused, misunderstood genre, it’s cause for celebration. Consider me celebrating, because Xu Haofeng has made his third movie. It was originally called The Master, but reached American shores as, fittingly, The Final Master.
There have been thousands of kung fu movies made, but 99.7% were made by craftsmen or women. Precious few were created by people who could be termed artists. In fact, just about the only trio I can think of is Liu Chia Liang (still the greatest kung fu filmmaker, with a baker’s dozen undisputed classics like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter to his name), Zhang Yimou (who only really made one, Hero, but it’s a doozy), and now Xu.
Yes, yes, I know. Had Bruce Lee lived beyond his fourth film, he might certainly have become a cinema artist as well as a martial artist, but look what they did to Game of Death and Circle of Iron. And look at all those increasingly cheapening clones. Master Liu died three years ago, and no one has been able to clone him, because he was just too good – at kung fu and filmmaking.
Like Liang, Xu makes movies about kung fu. 99% of kung fu films could survive if the kung fu was replaced by martial arts, guns, cars, or whatever. You take the kung fu out of Liang’s or Xu’s movies? No movie. But unlike Liang, Xu does not have total freedom to make whatever film he wants the way he wants to make it. Luckily, he has a pedigree. He started practicing Xingyi Quan kung fu when he was 14, then entered the Beijing Film Academy. In 2006, his autobiographical novel, The Bygone World, became a best seller.
Although Xu wrote the screenplay for Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster, he has only directed three films – all based on his writings: The Sword Identity (2011), Judge Archer (2012) and now, The Final Master (sadly, previously vaunted filmmaker Chen Kaige, of Raise the Red Lantern fame, made cinematic chop-suey of the film version of Xu’s 2007 best seller, Monk Comes Down the Mountain).
What all Xu’s books, scripts, and films have in common is yet another thing that distinguishes him from even Liu Chia Liang. Unlike most kung fu films, the hero does not start stupid and learns to become a master. In Xu’s films, the protagonist starts as the best, and is slowly, relentlessly, mercilessly brought down… not by a superior kung fu fighter, but by politics, money, desire, and ego.
Like any good kung fu student, Xu’s films get better as they go along. The Final Master is closer than its predecessors to being universally understood and accepted by the action film audience… but it ain’t there yet. I won’t say you have to know and love kung fu to fully appreciate the movie, but it would certainly help.
I got to sit down (at my phone) to talk to Xu (through a translator) after seeing The Final Master twice, and the first thing I asked was why the unique approach. After about thirty seconds of Mandarin filled my ears, the interpreter translated “No matter how good a fighter you are, you can’t be better than a tiger.”
So, although the fighting in his movies is exceptional (“rather than following the common Hong Kong action film style of quick edits and flashy moves, I filmed The Final Master fights with long, full-body shots”), Xu concentrates on something other than the student’s quest to become a “master.” Xu’s films actually take place in the petty world of “masters.”
Kung fu joke: how can you tell a master is not a master? When they say they are, and insist you call them, a master.
The Final Master centers on the last south Chinese Wing Chun torchbearer in 1912, who promised his teacher to pass down the art in a kung fu crazy northern Chinese city, only to be caught in a power struggle between rival kung fu schools, the local government, military forces, and his own morality (I could tell you the Chinese cast, but would it really help?). Xu’s visual approach to the story is both stark and lush, sharp and stunning, rich and textured — building to an extended battle in a literal crossroads, where the past and future of Chinese kung fu confront each other.
“Tianjin, the then-mecca of martial arts, could not escape the military’s encroachment,” Xu said. “With the military taking over the martial arts schools, the style evolved into one of training soldiers and armies. The Final Master captures the ethos of this era, delineating the conflicts between the individual versus the collective, and new versus traditional values. In this tragic era, should one go with or against the flow? This is the struggle the film’s protagonist faces.”
And it certainly doesn’t help that the flow keeps changing direction, as the various combatants change their minds to serve their own desires for lust, fame, money, or even integrity. Is it any wonder that the film is a sumptuous feast that might overwhelm even the most voracious of eaters?
“To fully illustrate this situation,” Xu said, “the film’s action sequences are specifically choreographed with knives. The knife artistry in each region symbolizes different ideologies. The north is one of political consciousness, with the south being one of individual will. Southern Chinese martial arts is very clean, simple, and individualistic. The northern martial arts style is heavily influenced by being the political center for hundreds of years – full of ritualistic and stately moves. But both the south and north knife artistry involves intricate footwork and forms.”
As does the film itself. The Final Master is not a simple, nor even easy, movie. But for anyone who’s willing to play kung fu with a film, made by a man who’s clearly far more knowledgeable on the subject than the likes of me, it is well worth watching. You even get to decide who the real Final Master is.