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Movie Review

Xu Haofeng knows the look of a ‘Master’

Wong Kar-Wai fans might recognize the Stetsons and long dusters donned by dangerous men in Hong Kong filmmaker Xu Haofeng’s initially astonishing, overly complicated, increasingly incoherent, and ultimately silly “The Final Master.” They are the signature duds of the title hero of Wong’s “The Grandmaster” (2013). Xu co-wrote the screenplay of that film, and this energetic martial arts workout, an adaptation of his own short story, bears similarly tangled plot elements, but not as much of the poetic clarity that elevated Wong’s film above the pedestrian concerns of narrative.

In discreet, crisply edited, and laconic packets of exposition, Xu sets up a premise that never stops expanding. It starts in China in 1912, when the republic has been freshly established but the army has maneuvered for power in the provinces, Master Chen (Liao Fan, somehow merging Leo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood), the last proponent of Wing Chun, the ancient, individualistic Southern style of knife-fighting, arrives in the Northern city of Tianjin, the kung fu capital of the country. Here he wants to start his own school of martial arts, but the deeply entrenched schools favoring the Southern style, which involves regimented masses of blade-wielders, present him with a byzantine set of obstacles.


So he must go undercover, taking on a pretend wife and an apprentice that he may or may not have to sacrifice to fulfill his ambition. That depends on how he manipulates or is manipulated by the leading figures in town, which include a shady grandmaster who looks like Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi and the stunning, androgynous, dragon-lady leader of a rival school (imagine Isabella Rossellini in a tuxedo) who exudes evil and polymorphous sexuality. These amoral types inspire some Dirty Harry-like ironic dialogue.

Cutting through all the complications, it comes down to an impossible dilemma: Should Master Chen betray the moral code of Wing Chun in order to assure Wing Chun’s survival? Visually, this translates into thrilling action sequences of lone knife-wielders hewing down ranks of adversaries with balletic precision. If preserving this means sacrificing a scruple or two, it’s worth the trade.


★ ★ ½

Written and directed by Xu Haofeng, based on his short story. Starring Liao Fan. At Boston Common. 109 minutes. Unrated (lots of killing and maiming, little blood). In Mandarin, with subtitles.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.