This article was last modified on July 16, 2017.


Fantasia 2017 Film Review: “The Final Master”

A Wing Chun master (Fan Liao of “Black Coal, Thin Ice”) has to defeat eight martial arts schools to open his own school. At the same time, he has become a chess piece in the local power dynamics.

Right off the bat, anyone who loves good cinematography is going to appreciate “The Final Master”. Director of photography Tianlin Wang brings with him a rich color palette that makes even the opening credits appear sharp and vibrant. The hues and crispness bring to life this time period in ways that only a great man behind the camera can. Accompanied by an interesting score composed of horns and strings (thanks to Wei An), we almost have a noir or mystery feel.

There is a fascinating mix of Asian and European cultures, with the Chinese embracing certain elements of upper class British culture. For those in the West, it is usually the American or Englishman in a story who wanders into the foreign land (“the Orient”)… seeing things from the Chinese perspective is a nice switch. The inclusion of Belarusian dancers is also a nice touch, adding in a third component of cross-culture. Not only is there the dominant East-meets-West aspect, but a Soviet bloc piece, as well, which fits in neither one side or the other.

While the reviewer’s knowledge of martial arts and its history is admittedly limited, there is something strange about the film referring to our hero as the last of the Wing Chun masters. Today, Wing Chun is known as the martial arts variant of Ip Man, Bruce Lee and even Robert Downey, Jr of all people. Perhaps this was lost in translation, but it defies belief that the ancient art was known by only one man in 1930 before becoming the most popular form of “kung fu” today.

Those looking for a classic, Shaw Brothers-style movie should be aware that the hand-to-hand martial arts is limited in this picture. However, the blade-on-blade action is intense and more than makes up for it. Every possible variation of sword, axe, dagger and more is utilized, including some that seem impossibly large to wield. In an era (1930s Tianjin) where guns were plentiful, it is fascinating that there is some level of honor about what is allowed in combat.

Historical nitpicks aside, this is a great film with beautiful cinematography and plenty of action. We also get a great supporting character in Madame Zou, played by Wenli Jiang (“Farewell My Concubine”). The movie was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 52nd Golden Horse Film Awards, as well as Best Supporting Actress and Best Choreography. It rightfully won in the latter category. North American audiences now get a chance to see the picture, as it screens July 16 at the Fantasia International Film Festival.

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