The Master (2015)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2018-03-20
Summary: No knives allowed in street fights in Tianjin
“No knives allowed in street fights in Tianjin”. That line from early in “The Final Master” sums up the attitude of director/writer/fight choreographer/editor Xu Haofeng toward the rule bound, formal tropes of martial arts movies. He comments on kung fu films, romantic comedies, Hollywood weepers and the earliest silent pictures. Liao Fan and Song Jia aren’t Tracy and Hepburn (nor are Song Yang and Madina Memet Bogart and Bacall) but there is enough rom-com by play between members of both couples to make you think of such films from decades ago. There is enough longing and tragedy to fill a Douglas Sirk film but mainly there are rules. Rules for setting up a kung fu school--you must defeat seven of the existing schools; no make that nine, plus the current master of the city. You must be from Tianjin. If you aren’t your apprentice must be and he has to defeat everyone. Oh, and you have to train the apprentice the current master selects for you.

There are fights aplenty with no wirework--everything is firmly planted on the ground and is based on the athletic ability of stuntmen and creativity in the editing room. Some of the hand to hand combat looks particularly brutal but the fights with spears and bladed weapons are fought to maim and not kill. The final battle in which Master Chen takes on and defeats scores of opponents all armed with different weapons is terrific. There are a few nods to the advent of modernity in China--a film is shot and then shown to the heads of the martial arts academies and military officers--and cinematic trickery involved in combat in movies is commented on and the audience response to it held up to ridicule.

There is a lot of talk--everyone has a backstory, all of which are explained or alluded to--and exposition is told and not shown. Many MacGuffins are introduced and some are commented on including a picture of Valentino that Zhou Gouhui prays to but most come and go within a scene. Not quite equal to the sum of its parts and a bit creaky where the seams between various stories show through.
Reviewer Score: 6