A screening of Haofeng Xu's latest martial art picture, his fourth feature and the fresh winner of BEST ACTION CHOREOGRAPHY in 2015 Golden Horse Awards, Haofeng, the co-screenwriter of Kar Wai Wong's THE GRANDMASTER (2013), has already manifested his unique philosophy and choreography of wushu since his shoestring budget second film THE SWORD IDENTITY (2011).
Although the follow-up JUDGE ARCHER (2012) still hasn't secured a release date in mainland China, THE MASTER undoubtedly is Haofeng's most ambitious and mainstream work to date, with a more bankable cast, lead by Liao as the master Chen, a southern master of Wing Chun, arrives in Tianjin during the beginning of 20th century, trying to open his own Kung-fu school, but there are certain rules he must obey in the flourishing martial art world, he marries Zhao (Jia Song), a sultry waitress in a posh restaurant and recruits a protégé Gen (Yang Song), whom he personally trains to be his stepping stone to astonish the local schools, which is firstly governed by Master Zhen (Jin), whom Chen makes a pact with to attain his goal. But soon he is usurped by the widow Ms. Zhou (Jiang), who burns with ambition and colludes with the warlord Lin (Huang), a former pupil of Zhen, together they vainly attempt to militarise all the Kung-fu schools, whereas Gen and Chen become the last stumbling blocks in their way.
What genuinely makes Haofeng's style so distinctive? Visually speaking, it is his idiosyncratic close-combat motion, the fast-moving and rapidly-editing techniques which transform combat skills from being aesthetically elegant (i.e. oriental gravity-defying jumping and flying) to something embedded with ritualistic devotion and awesome mastery, which is unsparingly efficient (sometimes even minimal) and deceivingly realistic, also, a glut of ancient Chinese weapons can maximally pique interest from viewers. On the other hand, thematically speaking, THE MASTER evokes the connotations of "anti-Kung-fu world", a rather bleak take on the conservative and fickle characteristics of these so-called martial artists, their mercenary pursuit trumps the noble idea of passing the knowledge on to their successors, Chen and Gen's master- and-apprentice relation is hinged solely on the former's personal interest, and the latter is a pawn whom he can desert without blinking his eyes, more complicated is his marriage with Zhao, and his rapport with Zhen, there is something pretty dark in Chen's motive to earn his name, yet the villainess Zhou can outsmart him in every step, for her self-seeking purpose though, only one misstep (one cannot overthrow all the formulae of a well-established genre), there is no one in her team can beat master Chen.
As a Kung-fu film, THE MASTER has a surprisingly low body count (only 2 major characters die in the film), killing becomes inhuman and utterly unnecessary when paralysing your opponents is sufficient enough to soldier on relentlessly. With an unhurried open ending, the story is far from taking its curtain call while a subsequent cat-and-mouse game is shaping up, Haofeng shows his confidence of a sure-fire sequel in the future. The cast is a shade uneven while veteran players Liao, Jin and Jiang all shine with impressive presences. Still, sometimes the dialogues need a bit more fine-tuning to sound believable under certain contexts, however, one sure thing is that Haofeng Xu has stoutly emerged as one of the most aspiring director radiant with an auteurist flair presently, in the traditional Chinese Kung-fu territory, who is worthy of the admiration from a much larger scale of spectators!
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