The Final Master (2015)
A game of knives
Were you aware that Netflix has a category in the genre selection drop down for it's streaming service called "Summer of Love?" I found that out today - and one of these movies didn't look like the others. The Final Master has been floating around on the service for a while, and I just haven't bother watching it yet (I was still partially on burn-out from a martial arts binge previous to seeing it being listed), and figured what an elaborate excuse to watch it when it shows up under such a wacky category? Expectations are tempered towards romance, but can blades slice through the drama and bring in some passionate fight choreography? There's only one way for me to find out.
I'm not big on romance movies - never really have been. Generally speaking, the closest I usually would care to get would be Phantom of the Opera. I may not flat out despise the genre and all of it's interesting quirks, but I'm also just not predisposed to gravitating towards it - I'm more the person that sighs slightly from annoyance when a perfectly good on screen chemistry of pals suddenly feels like a forced romance when it totally wasn't needed. Still, it isn't unheard of to me for martial arts flicks to focus on romance in some way or form as a central idea - a surprising many I've watched from Monster Hunt to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon all have a romance somewhat central to the plot regardless of how much of it is played for laughs or serious devotion. This movie handles it in a... well, I guess strange is the best way to put it. It might just be a cultural thing, and towards the end it certainly gets to the point where it feels like a more typical relation between the main and his wife, but at least in that one instance it's quite odd before hand. Of course, that's not all though - you also have a little romance between the apprentice and a tea shop owner whose just about as cute as can be, and an older master surprisingly ends up with a relationship to a foreign dancer even.
Still, one could argue about the importance of these relationships for the most part, and not just in the romantic department. Although it feels like things grow towards the end of the relationship of the main, it also feels a bit unpolished in it's execution of the shift. The romance between the apprentice and the vendor doesn't really go anywhere really, and the old master's is essentially just a "sly old dog" send off reaching for a laugh track. The relationship between the main and his apprentice actually plays more importance to the plot and has the larger impact on it, which in turn ends up being a little funny considering how little of the screen time even has the two in the same frame. There's another bit of juxtaposition of the situation on the older master and his apprentice, which sort of gives to angles of a very similar thing happening all whilst being used at the end to show just how much the main has grown from an emotional or human aspect over the honor-bound start.
Most of this is done through well placed acting. Although there is action, it's much more akin to a Drama with a few spots of action injected in. The story may focus primarily on one man's attempts to set up a martial arts school, but most the screen time is relations between people and this political game that's taking place in the city between the martial arts schools. Some of this is hurt a bit by some moments of random time passing that can leave you feeling like something is missing, but the pacing itself doesn't really feel too slow thanks to the added punch of the fights when they crop up and that, unbelievable or not, most of the scenes do have some meaning towards either the furtherment of the plot or characters. Still, if someone does go into this expecting high-octane action, they will without a doubt in my mind find themselves getting a bit bored by all this back and forth plotting and behind-the-plan mechanisms that play out in the form of all the drama.
That stated, the action scenes that are here are incredibly well done. Choreography is on point, and the fact that the body count is so incredibly low with the maneuvers on display (in movie) really speaks to the skill of the fighter putting them to use. It's made more obvious towards the end when it's stated that people aren't getting killed, which helps balance out some of the audio work making you sure someone just got chopped up, but it's also nice that it isn't some hand-waved attempt of making the movie more accessible by toning down the violence without actually doing so. There's also an assortment of weapons on display, from pole arms to knives to fancier things that you don't see too often. In all honesty, however, most of this is really during the final set of the movie, as prior there are a few knife fights and a round or two of good old fist fights. Things are certainly more grounded here as well, missing a lot of the wire-fu action and over-stylized flips that draw most of us in to a martial arts flick in the first place.
As slightly hinted at a moment ago, the audio work can be a bit confusing when it comes to sound effects. The steel slashes and over-done whooshes are nothing new, but at times they can be used in a manner that really makes it seem as though they are implying that someone is getting sliced up ala killing blow when it's really just the weapon getting drawn back away from them. It doesn't hurt the scenes any outside of minor confusion towards people getting up and not being dead, but it also does lend a little bit of a Power Rangers feeling of over-blowing things. The actor audio comes through fine - not that I can understand Cantonese to tell if they are really doing an awesome job with emotion or inflections or anything of that sort. The music did it's job of being there when it wanted it to be, but in total fairness I also can't bring a single moment to mind outside the tune playing at the end that I really recall music playing at all.
Costumes are pretty fancy here, adding punches of color and character. The setting being in a transitional phase helps make for such a large variety I'm sure, ranging from incredibly fancy and fitting cocktail dresses and suits all the way to a more typical period piece slum-dwelling rags and martial arts garb. It's a nice variety to see, and sometimes it's even used to help distinguish characters - such as the hats worn by the main and his apprentice. The blood isn't bad or too overdone when it does appear on screen, and when things call for an actor to be emotional they do well enough with or without the help of things like prop-wounds or weapons.
I don't think this movie is necessarily going to win anybody over to a specific genre, but it's an enjoyable movie regardless. It probably won't have enough action to appease those less fond of dramas, but what is there is pretty dang well done. The romances are somewhat typical for the most part, with the main characters being by far the oddest one. Perhaps a few more scenes to help flesh that out could have helped, but at the same time it might not have as well. I'd recommend rental over purchase to better get a feel of it it's the kind of movie you want, but there are far worse things that could have been when I opted to watch something out of a "Summer of Love" category.