The Final Master, a martial-arts picture, was written and directed by Xu Haofeng, whose most notable previous credit was collaborating on the screenplay for Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster. Originally, the new film was called simply The Master; it’s presumably been retitled for its U.S. release in order to avoid confusion with Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. Is The (Final) Master the same movie as The Grandmaster, only less grand, and maybe with a little more finality? Basically, yes. This one doesn’t feature Ip Man, the famed real-life fighter who’s also inspired his own franchise (three films and counting), but it’s similarly mired in political machinations regarding who’s allowed to start a martial-arts academy, involving challenges to the umpteen other instructors teaching various disciplines in the same region. (Once again, our hero favors the Wing Chun school.) Oddly, though Xu clearly loves this story to death—it appears to also be the foundation for his 2011 film The Sword Identity—he doesn’t seem to be making any improvement when it comes to telling it with any degree of clarity. Between action sequences, confusion tends to reign.
What’s fairly certain is that Chen Shi (Liao Fan, the striking star of Black Coal, Thin Ice), longtime apprentice to the elderly grandmaster Zheng Shan’ao (Chin Shih-Chieh), wants to bring Wing Chun to Tianjin—the center for martial-arts instruction in the 1930s, when The Final Master is set. Naturally, there are arcane rules he must meet in order to do so. Specifically, Chen must train an apprentice of his own, who must then defeat eight champions from Tianjin’s 19 current academies. (Nobody, he’s told, has ever managed to beat more than five.) And even that’s not the end of matters, because the other schools would lose face were they successfully challenged, which would be unacceptable. Consequently, Chen selects the young prodigy Geng Liang Chen (Song Yang), knowing in advance that, should Geng win, he’ll be forced to leave Tianjin at best and murdered at worst in order to restore the balance of power. Further intrigue—and there’s a whole lot more intrigue than fighting in The Final Master—reveals the various ways in which Chen is being played by various factions, of which he, and we, are only dimly aware.
You’d think that Geng taking on the eight rival schools would be the movie’s focus, yet only a couple of these matches are shown on screen and only briefly. Nor are there any significant training sequences. Instead, what fighting occurs seems largely random, as when Chen’s wife (Song Jia) gets her purse stolen on the street, and Chen winds up taking on 20 or so thugs while seated on a bench and having an earnest conversation with her about the future of their marriage. It’s a funny, deftly staged scene, but has little to do with the narrative—which would be fine were the convoluted narrative itself not otherwise so dominant. Without Wong Kar-Wai’s visual grandeur to provide a sense of the epic, The Final Master just lurches clumsily from one scene to the next, flatlining whenever fists aren’t flying. Even when they are, Xu favors truly bizarre foley effects, with mundane hand-to-hand combat frequently sounding as if the participants are withdrawing swords from their scabbards and as if bones are being snapped with every blow (but only small chicken bones). All in all, P.T. Anderson can probably rest easy.