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Xu Haofeng, the best-selling author of martial-arts fiction who co-wrote the script for Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster, returns to the director’s chair with another tale of 1930s expert fighters in The Final Master. As infused with seriousness about kung fu philosophy as his earlier work but also deeply invested in a complicated set of social rules governing behavior in Tianjin, then a hotbed of chopsocky training, the picture has a strong appeal to genre fans. While it lacks the filmmaking mastery that has carried some wuxia pictures to mainstream success Stateside, it is more than handsome and stylish enough to win over many of the fence-sitters who’ve learned to appreciate the genre’s highlights.
Liao Fan plays the ever-sober Chen, a recent arrival in Tianjin who wants to open a school for young fighters. But in a city that already has 18 schools teaching various techniques, newcomers aren’t welcome. In the first of many scenes revolving around local tradition and/or face-saving etiquette, Chen learns that his fighting style must defeat the champions of eight schools before he’s allowed to start his own. But since any fighter who humiliates so many locals must be exiled to preserve the peace, he’ll have to train a disciple to fight on his behalf.
This setup will soon get much more complicated, with further proxies, double-crosses and motivations that may be more comprehensible to Chinese audiences than they are here. At the core of things is a quartet of characters: Chen; the wife he proposes to before they’ve ever spoken (Song Jia, who deepens the character’s complicated nature); Zheng (Jin Shi-Jye), a local master who wants to ensure that ancient knowledge is passed down; and Geng (Song Yeng), a cocksure prodigy who becomes Chen’s apprentice after hitting on his wife (??).
In a script that often moves abruptly — for all the methodical explanations they give, these characters can still surprise us when they act — Xu skips over the usual Chen-training-Geng business and gets into the series of battles the youngster has trained for. Here, but especially in other scenes involving Chen, the movie thrills. Xu choreographed the action himself, with plenty of long shots, and revels in combat that, however unlikely in a narrative sense, is credible in physical terms. Bare-hand fighting is invigorating here, but the knives are where it’s at: We are treated to an encyclopedic display of styles, usually with Chen wielding a butterfly sword in each hand (not to be confused with the switchblade-like butterfly knife) and taking down men wielding pole axes, skateboard-sized swords and curvy-bladed hand weapons that would make a Klingon cringe.
Xu cares more about Chen’s marriage than his focus on combat might suggest. In one characteristically odd sequence, husband and wife have a long (and calm) discussion of Chen’s upbringing and dreams while he is fending off 20 street thugs with a long bamboo pole. Some viewers will find the film’s mannered performances and direction silly; but while Wang Tianlin’s lensing doesn’t match the luxuriant sheen that Christopher Doyle and Philippe Le Sourd have delivered for Wong, the production elements do add up to a coherent style. An offbeat but enjoyable score by An Wei, who draws on everything from fuzzy semi-funk to nuevo tango pioneer Astor Piazzolla, furthers the pic’s odd variety of cool.
Distributor: United Entertainment Partners
Production companies: Beijing Century Partner Culture & Media Inc., Heyi Pictures
Cast: Liao Fan, Song Jia, Jiang Wenli, Jin Shi-Jye, Song Yang, Huang Jue
Director-screenwriter: Xu Haofeng
Producers: Lou Xiaoxi, Lisa Li, Hu Xiaofeng
Executive producers: Dongqiu Chen, Dong Yang
Director of photography: Wang Tianlin
Production designer: Xian Ruiqing
Editors: Sisi He, Xu Hoofeng
Composer: An Wei
Casting director: Lu Men Cui
In Chinese with English subtitles
Not rated, 109 minutes
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