The Master is the third film of Wu Xia author, martial artist, film critic, Taoist scholar and film director Xu Haofeng, after the intriguing but often willfully abstruse The Sword Identity (2011) and Judge Archer (2012). Adapted once again from one of his short stories, it takes place in 1932 and follows Chen Shi (Liao Fan), a Wing Chun master from Guangdong who arrives in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin with hopes of opening a martial arts school. While arranging a marriage of interest with a young waitress (Song Jia), he’s also initiated by aging grandmaster Zheng (Chin Shih Chieh) to the city’s rules on opening a new school: he who wishes to do so must first defeat eight of the nineteen established martial arts schools. However, if one were to manage such a feat, he would then have to be defeated and cast out of Tianjin, to preserve the city’s martial arts reputation. Thus Chen Shi is advised by old master Zheng to find himself a pupil that he will groom, and who will then fight on his behalf – and be cast out instead of him. Chen chooses an ambitious and gifted young coolie (Song Yang) to be his disciple and scapegoat, the first move in a protracted game of Go involving not only the outsider master and his pupil, but also old master Zheng, his former disciple (now a KMT Admiral’s aide), and the powerful head of Tianjin’s martial arts syndicate (Jiang Wenli).
If David Mamet were to one day write and direct a Chinese martial arts film (I’m thus not counting 2008’s Red Belt) one would assume it would look a lot like The Master. Xu Haofeng’s approach to genre is indeed strikingly similar in some aspects to that of the American writer-director: a kind of sardonic realism, stripped of all sentimentality and with narrative signposts reduced to a bare minimum (without forsaking overall clarity), with intricate double-crossings unfolding constantly. It’s hard to choose a character to root for: they’re mostly either self-centered, conniving, power-hungry, or all of the above. Feelings are not absent but always collateral, an accidental outgrowth: Chen Shi and his wife develop some sort of affection, but their initial bond is one of pure, blank-stared mutual interest; likewise Chen grows to care in some way for his disciple, but at first he chose him as an expendable asset in his bid for legitimacy.
Indeed, Xu Haofeng’s take on the martial arts world is a truly sardonic, almost absurdist one: a jungle of codification – most of the film’s dialogues are about discussing rules and etiquette – where masters don’t even teach the true form of the art for fear of being bested, where power struggles are constant and where the strong prey on the weak, in total opposition to the fundamental nature of Chinese martial arts as an equalizer of men and a means to deflate conflict. The contradictions don’t stop there: a whole subplot involves, through old master Zheng’s ex-disciple who is now an KMT officer, the encroaching of the military on the martial arts world of Tianjin, observed with sarcastic resignation by Jiang Wenli’s manly master Zou. But this is only a full circle being achieved: ‘martial’, lest one forgets, is a synonym for ‘military’, and indeed Chinese martial arts have military origins.
Still, Xu Haofeng’s mordant view of the martial arts world of Tianjin in the film is balanced by his obvious love of martial arts and the films that picture them. The cast is peppered not only with his fellow, real-life wushu practitioners, but also with illustrious figures of kung fu cinema, like good old Xiong Xin Xin in a short and typically self-deprecating performance, or Shaw Brothers legend Chen Kuan Tai as one of Chen Shi’s final opponents in the film. Fights are kept short, grounded and realistic in their unfolding: indeed the only protracted fights in the film are those that feature many opponents. Wires are absolutely absent and speed is kept reasonable, though sometimes subtly enhanced. Xu, who choreographed the fights himself, highlights the use of butterfly blades and favors intricacy over flash, sometimes going for mesmerizing single-takes throw-downs, and other times using clever editing and energetic stunt-work to compensate for the more experienced thespians’ lesser martial arts skills. The final fight is superb, a kind of dissertative action scene reminiscent of the great Liu Chia Liang’s film treatises on Chinese martial arts: indeed, it has the setting of the Martial Club finale (a hutong, those narrow stone alleyways found in Northern cities of China) and the weapons variety and display of Legendary Weapons of China.
Wang Tianlin’s richly-colored – and sometimes subtly-quirky – cinematography is a delight throughout, and certainly serves the film better than An Wei’s distracting and forcedly offbeat score. The cast is almost uniformly excellent: Liao Fan takes what could have been an unlikable cypher of a character and imbues it with a drive and carefully concealed humanity that make him compelling to follow. And he has a great supporting cast to bounce off: Song Yang recalls a more wiry Huang Xiaoming with the fiendishly charismatic glint in his eye, the beautiful Song Jia radiates inner strength and slowly-melting resentment, and Chin Shih Chieh is his usual excellent self as the wily but jaded old master. Only Jiang Wenli is a bit one-note as a constantly smirking, ruthless Madame.
Long Story Short: Offbeat but involving, sardonic yet infused with an authentic love of Chinese martial arts, Xu Haofeng’s The Master is one of the most stimulating kung fu films in recent times. ****