June 7, 2016
Xu Haofeng is a student of martial arts, a chronicler of its lore and history. He graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1997, but instead of entering the movie business, he spent over a decade tracking down old kung fu masters and writing wuxia novels. His most famous publication is The Bygone Kung Fu World (Shiqu de Wulin, 2006), a book about Li Zhongxuan , a practitioner of xingyiquan, one of the Wudang styles of Chinese martial arts (Wong Kar-wai admired the book, which led him to hire Xu to co-write The Grandmaster). When Xu found him, Li had been working as a receptionist for a household appliance store in downtown Beijing for decades. Xu is obsessed with preserving the minutae of kung fu history. He told China Daily that, “A real kung fu battle lasts only seconds. And the results of a competition between top practitioners are decided even before opponents begin combat.” This reveals itself in his directorial debut The Sword Identity (2011), an elliptical and idiosyncratic martial arts film in which fights end in the blink of an eye. Xu’s latest feature, The Final Master, was released into U.S. theaters this past weekend, and is yet another intensely ritualized take on the kung fu film.
Based on one of Xu’s novellas, The Final Master takes place in 1930s Tianjin, a heavily Westernized port city. The Qing dynasty had been ceding territory, or “concessions”, within the city to European countries since the 19th century in order to encourage trade, hence all the English language advertising seen slapped all over town. Chen Shi (Liao Fan) makes a vow to his master to pass on the lessons of the Wing Chun fighting style to future generations. Exiled from Canton, he attempts to set up an academy in Tianjin. The only way to open a school in the city, however, is to beat the eight great martial arts houses in battle. Wanting to blend into society, he makes a business arrangement with an acid tongued barmaid with a Rudolph Valentino crush (Song Jia) to be his wife, as a strange single drfiter would cause undue attention. He also learns that an outsider would never be accepted into the Tianjin martial arts community, so he drafts the cocky local Geng Liangchen (Song Yang), to train as an apprentice. The rules keep shifting under Chen Shi’s feet, however, as local politics and the poisonous influence of dojo boss Madame Zou (a delightfully evil Wenli Jiang) and the increasing power of the military begins to undermine the old martial arts traditions. Whether or not Chen Shi gets to open his academy, he will face down all eight dojos, regardless of the cost.
As in The Sword Identity, the fights are staged with unfamiliar quickness (The Final Master won for Best Action Choreography at the 2015 Golden Horse Awards). Xu believes this to be a more realistic way of depicting how martial arts were actually fought, a matter of one quick thrust or parry before defeat. Liao Fan trained for two months to pull off the style Xu prefers – which forbids the use of stuntmen. Fighters are doomed by their choice of weapon, stance, or target before the bouts have even begun. These are not adrenaline pumping sequences, but cerebral and cunning. It is disorienting to watch these after decades of ever-more elaborate stunts and wire-work, making these “realist” fights seem abstract, suggestions of fights, templates of them, rather than the real thing. It gives Xu’s films a rather ritualistic dreamlike quality, of men going through pre-determined motions. In the climactic battle, held in a stone alleyway, waves of fighters ebb and flow with disturbing orderliness, they bow in defeat and depart as if completing a stage acts. For Xu these are the only moments that matter – the clash of broad Northern swords with Chen Shi’s smaller, quicker Southern blades. His narratives float, while his fights are freighted with the weight of the world. The Sword Identity and The Final Master have near-identical plots, about beating martial arts schools so out-of-town masters can open an academy (I haven’t seen his second feature, 2011′s Judge Archer, because it has never been released, even in China) . But this basic set-up fractures into pieces as the moves go along, with none of the normal plot payoffs one would expect of such a linear narrative line. Instead there are proliferating subplots and a miasma of obscure motivations. Xu never allows you to see inside his characters’ heads. You have to read them from the way they move.
Near the beginning Chen Shi has just entered Tianjin and is having dinner at a Western restaurant. He is told no one has ever eaten more than five loaves of their bread at one sitting. So, to match the number of martial arts houses he has to beat, he starts eating eight loaves of bread before stalling in gluten overload. Everything in Xu’s films is a test of some sort or another that has to be met, though resolutions are foggy and happy endings are non-existent. The fighters in Xu Haofeng’s films abide by Tom Sizemore’s line in Heat, “the action is the juice.” The action is their principles put into motion, their spiritual beliefs made physical.
In The Final Master the militarization of society is pushing out the old martial art codes. Chen Shi and his dogged, stubborn refusal to compromise is a bulwark to protect the legacy Wing Chun kung fu. Chen Shi rarely makes more than one movement in a fight, staying still as long as possible before flicking out his arms in an an effortless gesture that stuns his opponents (whom he never kills, only incapacitates). He wants his wisdom to be absorbed by the fighters he is vanquishing – each fight a lesson, each loss an education.
In 2009 China Daily described his novels: “Xu prefers to meticulously describe battle scenes and how people undertake strict training. He says he does so according to what he learned during his studies. Xu often strays from main plots, addressing other interesting topics, such as ink painting, calligraphy, antiques and food, to add more dimensions.” His films are extensions of these novels, with simple narratives that drift away into the ether while the action remains gem-like in its precision and clarity. These are rigorous, principled, and remarkably strange films, possessing a recalcitrant, obsessive personality not often seen in action movies of today.