A dour myth of kung fu in the years before the Japanese war. Director Xu Haofeng excises most of what’s interesting in such tales in favor of a less-complicated-than-it-seems plot about a city’s martial arts schools governed by arbitrary and pointless rules, vague intimations of the historical period (the Japanese are never mentioned, and neither are the Communists or Nationalists named) and moody stares masquerading as romanticism. Xu’s claim to fame is the script for Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, which this film resembles greatly in plot, subject and time period but not at all in any other (that is to say, any meaningful) respect. It’s made all the more unpalatable by the bland sameness of the action, usually (but not exclusively) cut just enough that we get a feel for the athletic prowess of the performers, displaying a rarely seen on screen variation on Wing Chun armed with long knives, but are denied any actual pleasure in seeing them work. But at least no one will leave the theatre without knowing the movie was set in Tianjin, a city which apparently has nine rivers.