Prolific filmmaker Xu Haofeng recently premiered his martial arts movie, The Final Master, at this year’s SIFF. Even though he graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1997, the auteur spent years studying martial arts, Taoism, and apprenticing to two masters before shooting a single frame of any movie.
In 2006, Xu wrote a biographical novel, The Bygone Kung-Fu World. The next year, it was a martial arts fantasy, Monk Comes Down the Mountain, that Chen Kaige (Farewell, My Concubine) turned into a film in 2015.
Xu finally directed his first film, The Sword Identity, in 2011, followed by Judge Archer in 2012. That same year, director Wong Kar-wai asked Xu to write a screenplay, which became the film, The Grandmaster. In 2014, Xu wrote a novella, The Master, on which he based The Final Master.
With his love for fine art, Xu naturally includes fashionably dressed characters in this period piece about rivaling martial arts schools. Besides its glamorous visual tone, the film also features jazz-infused music—another deviation from most martial arts films. The International Examiner caught up with Xu Haofeng to talk about filmmaking, martial arts, and history.
International Examiner: The style that you chose to tell a martial arts story is such a departure from the usual narrative. Was there anything in particular that inspired you to make such a fashion-conscious film about fighting?
Xu Haofeng: Chinese people not only invented kung-fu films, but also invented a genre about social issues, which are about Chinese traditional morals. Through the stories about father and son relationships, husband and wife relationships, etc., this social issues genre presented the rise and fall of different Chinese communities and classes when Westerners came to China at the beginning of the 20th century. After China started to follow the ideology of communism, this genre started to die down. An Italian film critic mentioned to a professor at film school that this Chinese social issues genre had some influence on the neo-realism films of Italy. I combined both the martial arts genre and the social issues genre in making this film.
IE: The music in The Final Master was incredible. What made you choose music not typically associated with martial arts?
Xu: Because Italian western films have unique scores, I was exploring—trying to find a unique score for my kung-fu films. There are a large number of young Chinese people creating experimental music. My method is to put the experimental music into a regular story. It turned out that the majority of the audience liked the music. They thought it was fresh, proving that experimental art can be acceptable in pop culture.
IE: The strong presence of Europeans also added a different element to the film. Even though there have been period pieces about foreigners in China before, your film seems to uniquely highlight them. Is there a reason for that?
Xu: The recent hundred years of Chinese history is the history about westernization. The real Chinese gentlemen class in Northern China is just like the people from the Meiji Restoration in Japan. They learned very carefully from Westerners. The generation of my grandfather still has the habit of drinking afternoon tea, influenced by the West when they grew up. In that period of time, Westerners lived together with Chinese people in Beijing and Tianjin. They did not live in westernized houses, but in siheyuan (courtyard houses) and were part of the life of my grandfather’s generation. That generation was not against the idea of marrying Westerners. Because China was in a transformational moment after being through lots of revolutions, the Western women who came to China thought China was a mysterious and romantic place. They had high expectations about Chinese men, and Chinese men were good at saying sweet words and taking care of women. So, Western women accepted offers of marrying Chinese men.
IE: How much has your martial arts background contributed to making this film more realistic?
Xu: My background in martial arts is vital to my filmmaking. I do not know how to do a Hong Kong style kung-fu film. I do martial arts films based on my own martial arts training experience.
IE: What about your background as a writer?
Xu: My background as a writer helps me a lot. After training as a writer, I am very clear about my choices in film. I can be very accurate about what to put and what not to put in my films. I do not film extra angles or takes. There are barely any wasted takes.
IE: What’s your next film about?
Xu: It’s about the last battle with cold weaponry during WWII in China. I will show the big saber techniques from China. During that period of time, China was very behind in modern weaponry. At the beginning of the war, there were barely any modern weapons warehouses in Northern China, so that the Chinese army had to use the big sabers to help fight the war. They had to do sneak attacks and tried to get into melees as fast as they could. You can see some photos with Chinese soldiers with grenades at their waists, but holding big sabers in their hands. I really want to present the huge amount of courage Chinese people had in such a bad situation.