It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Xu Haofeng, writer of Wong Kar-Wai’s “The Grandmaster," returns to the martial art known as Wing Chun in “The Final Master." This time, instead of chronicling Ip Man, the Wing Chun master who trained Bruce Lee, Xu focuses on Chen Shi (Fan Liao), a 1930's-era master who wants to bring Wing Chun to Tianjin, a city in Northern China. Chen Shi wants to honor his master’s dying wish to open a school there, so that this particular martial arts discipline may live on for future generations.
Pitching a tent for Wing Chun won’t be easy for Chen Shi. As more than one person will state during “The Final Master," this is Tianjin, and there are rules and regulations to be followed. I’ll be honest with you: Said rules and regulations get so complicated that I lack the clarity to fully describe them to you. But, damn if I didn’t enjoy listening to every single word in Xu’s adaptation of his short story. There’s a pulpy, novelistic richness to the proceedings; the characters utter lines as purple as Prince’s aura while they cross and double-cross one another. Power struggles are imbued with a stubborn sense of tradition that almost justifies their occasional descent into absurdity. There’s politics and military actions and a powerful nemesis named Master Zou (Wenli Jiang), whose chill demeanor is the most entertaining thing in the picture.
Master Zou makes the rules in Tianjin, and in order to open a school, one has to defeat eight of Tianjin’s champions of rival schools. But that’s not all. One must also be a native of Tianjin to ultimately have the school be accepted as legitimate. Being an outsider from Canton, Chen Shi must stroll into Tianjin with the manufactured appearance of a married man out to train a local resident as the apprentice who will battle the rival schools. Zhao Guohui (Jia Song), the former working girl who marries Chen Shi, has her own agenda and a tragic backstory singed with scandal. The apprentice, Geng Liang Chen (Yang Song) also has his own agenda and tragic backstory.
In fact, everybody in “The Final Master” has an agenda and a tragic backstory. They’re always revealed in dialogue rather than flashbacks, and for the most part, they don’t matter as much in the final outcome. You may find this problematic, even annoying. But I’m the guy who lives for the sci-fi movie moments where scientists rattle off rivulets of extraneous, expository technobabble. So I felt right at home with all these character detail MacGuffins.