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The Final Master - Movie Poster
Original Title:
Shifu

China 2015

Genre:
Martial Arts, Drama

Director:
Xu Haofeng

Cast:
Liao Fan
Song Jia
Song Yang
Jiang Wenli
Chin Shi-Chieh
Huang Jue
Maidina


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The Final Master

The Final Master - Film Screenshot 1

Story: Chen Shi (Liao Fan) is a master of Wing Chun and wants to open a school in Tianjin, China's centre of martial arts during the 30s. However, this turns out to be impossible for an outsider. Master Zheng (Chin Shi-Chieh) is one of those who make the rules in Tianjin and helps Chen to find a loophole within the ruleset. Chen needs to take in a local student who then beats at least eight martial arts schools in Tianjin and then faces Zheng, who Chen has taught all his tricks for him to beat the student. This way the schools could save face and the student had to leave the city while Chen would be allowed to open a school. For the role of this tragic chess piece Chen has chosen the former rickshaw driver Geng (Song Yang). Furthermore, he has taken Zhao Guohui (Song Jia) as his wife as some sort of disguise, who happens to have a tragic past. She also gets behind Chen's true plan and wants to warn Geng. At the same time Chen slowly gets the attention of master Zou (Jiang Wenli) since his student beats the other schools without any real problem. She sees right through Chen's plan and devises her own plan to counteract Chen's...

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Review: "The Final Master" is probably the most interesting martial arts movie brought to screen in the last few years. The story is full of political intrigue, an almost art house-like view on the world of martial artists during Tianjin's 30s and at the same time the flick is also an action blockbuster. The movie may not score full marks in every category, but you certainly have to take your hat off to the fact that director Xu Haofeng presents something which in part resembles more a novel than a movie as it retains the subtlety and a certain depth of characters of former medium. Accordingly, the dialogues are very well written, too, which is extremely unusual for a martial arts flick. But fans of action cinema will absolutely get their money's worth as well.

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Xu Haofeng has already written the screenplay to Wong Kar-Wai's "The Grandmaster" and once again we dive into the world of Wing Chun, although this time it's not Bruce Lee's master Ip Man who stands in the centre of events. But there is another film Xu's work is reminding us of even more, which is "The Sword Identity". And this shouldn't come as a surprise since Xu has directed that one, too. The strangely nebulous atmosphere of that movie is fortunately not to be found in Xu's newest work, yet this doesn't mean that the story would lose any of its depth. The director has learned from his mistakes and delivers a movie which comes across as a lot more viewer-friendly. The once again convoluted plot - rest assured, this time it is really a lot easier to follow the events, though - has so much substance to it, because it is based on a novel written by the director himself.

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Thus, there are countless rules which martial artists have to abide by and if you think you have seen through who is playing who there is another twist thrown in. "The Final Master" is like a fight between two masters: a chess game where several moves have to be planned way in advance. However, it's particularly interesting that many characters have a motive for their actions and that their background story comes to light during the dialogues at times. Flashbacks explaining past events are steered clear off, but instead the dialogues are of a quality that you very seldomly get to see in this genre. This richness of small side stories are worthy of praise because the stories aren't of importance to the actual finale. Still, within them the director proves a keen sense for details which should be displayed in every movie.

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There is a lot happening in "The Final Master" and the editing is fast and at times draws sharp edges. This once again reminds us of a novel, as does the neutral perspective which the viewer assumes. Because of this, quite a few scenes turn out surprisingly unemotional. You almost get the feeling that you can't truely warm to the characters' fate. Nevertheless, lead actor Liao Fan ("Black Coal, Thin Ice") in fact succeeds in bestowing the kind of honesty upon his at first sight very egoistic character which you would expect of a master. Yes, he is not just the manipulative, ambitious fighter who finally wants to make a name for himself, and Song Jia ("Curiosity kills the Cat") as the wife adds to the movie being infused with a few more emotions. Yet, they are still working on a subtle level.

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While the fast-paced editing soon can be accepted as an interesting pecularity of the movie, this doesn't always apply when it comes to the quite upbeat, organ-heavy score. The contrast to the setting of the 30s is at times too obvious. But if it somewhat worked in the reinterpretation of "Zatoichi", it can't be that bad here either, right? By the way, the face-offs also resemble those of samurai movies. Since there are several weapons put to use - from knives to giant swords, which you normally would only see Cloud from "Final Fantasy VII" carry around - the individual fights are short, concise and coined by tension-building breaks of tactical thinking. Moreover, the fights are quite numerous and outstandingly choreographed, even though the pacing has been articifially sped up during post-production. In the end, "The Final Master" remains a bit colder than is good for it, but the fantastic screenplay and the genre mix of martial arts, drama and political thriller make this movie one of the bravest, most innovative and even somewhat most impressive movies from China of the last few years.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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