Chen Shi (Fan Liao), a master of the martial art of wing chun, has come to the Chinese city of Tianjin on the eve of WWII to open his own academy, set on fulfilling his master’s dying wish of bringing wing chun to northern China. This is the feeble catalyst for the plot, which involves the efforts of Shi’s protégé, Geng Liang Chen (Yang Song), to defeat the champions of eight of the rival academies, the prerequisite for Shi opening a school in the city. This lays the groundwork for a seemingly endless series of convoluted double-dealing, backstabbing, and factional realignment that grows so byzantine it becomes nearly impossible to decipher who’s on what side or why.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same basic plot as writer-director Haofeng Xu’s prior The Sword Identity and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, for which he wrote the screenplay. The repeated treatments of the same material, unfortunately, have not rendered the plot more coherent or the fight scenes more dazzling. The screenplay’s stilted dialogue and obvious metaphors aren’t helped by the actors’ one-note performances, all heavy-browed brooding that quickly sucks any possibility of humor and joy from the proceedings. Chen defeats one opponent after another in a monotonous series of unimaginatively choreographed and poorly delineated scenes. Xu even withholds the standard genre pleasure of showing the apprentice’s training, which he skips over completely, telling the audience about the teacher’s skill and the student’s ability instead of showing it.
Elsewhere, interwar Tianjin is depicted as a veritable post-racial, queer utopia. Shi’s antagonist, Master Zou (Wenli Jiang), the head of a rival school, is a strikingly androgynous woman who wears Western power suits and tells even the city’s military authorities how to go about their business. Accordingly, some of the martial arts champions who Chen must defeat are women, and Shi’s (anti-)climactic battle is with Zou. Tianjin is described as a “transnational” city, and The Final Master shows both whites and Chinese in the roles of masters and servants, prostitutes and johns, though no racism or racial inequality is evidenced at any point during the film.
We also discover that Shi learned martial arts as a child to survive after his upper-class family’s lands were dispossessed, presumably by the communists. Given that this prewar paradise is ruled by the nationalist Kuomintang, who were forced to flee to Taiwan by the communists after the war, it’s possible that Xu posits the nationalists as the more modern and progressive of the two groups. However, the film’s central conflict revolves around Zou’s monopoly of Tianjin’s martial arts schools, implying that power sharing is the only way to resolve the problems of the city and, therefore, the nation. By the time the ending sets up the possibility of a sequel, the work’s politics have revealed themselves to be no less confused or ill-defined than its other components.