Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first; The Grandmaster is the most breathtakingly beautiful martial arts film ever made. Crafted with exquisite precision by famed Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, the lush, passionate flourishes of his earlier dramas now romanticize the brutal art of kung fu. There are so many images here that will be burned into memory, each battle moves with such balletic grace they make Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon seem as if it’s standing still. From a visual standpoint, Kar Wai has outdone himself. But as a film that is meant to chronicle the life of Wing Chun master Ip Man (Tony Leung), the man who famously trained Bruce Lee, it never quite measures up.
Harvey Scissorhands strikes again! That’s pretty much been the cry since Weinstein edited a shorter cut of the film specifically for American audiences, one that dropped about 20 minutes of crucial backstory. While I’m not one of those to slam ol’ Harvey for his butchery of the studio’s foreign film slate, the impact of his choices are obvious with The Grandmaster. What should be an across-the-board chronicle of Ip Man’s tumultuous life in 19th century China, is more like the Cliffs Notes version, lacking substance and emotion until the next fight can break out.
The film begins with what can only be described as an astonishing rain-soaked battle, probably the scene that had Weinstein salivating in the first place. Ip Man is just a regular man in a time when tensions have ripped China into factions from the North and South, a split that has also affected the regional schools of kung fu. In an effort to unite both sides under one leader, Ip Man is chosen to challenge the northern grandmaster, but ends up falling hopelessly in love with his daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who has inherited his style known as the “64 Hands”. Yes, this is one of those movies where all of the techniques have wild names and they are announced with vigor before they’re used in combat. Kar-Wai basks in that world, creating dreamy, atmospheric settings for impeccable action that is easy to get swept up in.
That’s unfortunately all there is to latch on to, however, as we learn very little that is new about Ip Man, a figure who has had multiple movies and TV series devoted to him already. We barely get a glimpse of his family life before he loses them after the Japanese occupation, and the film meanders aimlessly when he hits Hong Kong to…well, basically meander aimlessly. We see his rise to prominence against the backdrop of China’s demise, then his fall from grace, but none of it has a clear focus. Not helping are jarring shifts in perspective as we get treated to thumbnail explanations for major events in his life and that of Gong Er, as they supposedly pine for one another over the course of ten years. Leung and Ziyi do sorrowful longing better than almost anybody, so when together it often feels like you’re in one of Kar-Wai’s passionate masterpieces like In the Mood for Love or Lust, Caution. But we don’t actually see them together that often, and there’s simply not enough of a shared emotional connection. Having seen the fuller version, it’s these crucial back story elements that have been excised for the benefit of smoother transition to the action. What Weinstein doesn’t recognize is that providing richer characters only gives the fights a deeper impact.
What ends up happening is that you’ll be waiting patiently for another altercation to break out, because that’s when the film truly comes alive. Leung makes for a perfect choice to play the stoic Ip Man, a man of peace and a walking weapon, who wrestled with that dichotomy every single moment. Nobody knows how to capture Zhang Ziyi’s ferocious beauty better than Kar-Wai, and the film’s most memorable, poetic images have her as the centerpiece. Ultimately she steals the entire film away from Leung as we begin to focus on Gong Er’s journey to reclaim her father’s legacy; a quest that ends with an unreal train station fight as the snow softly drifts.
A decent Wong Kar-Wai film is still going to be miles ahead of other directors’ best work, and chances are you’re not going to see better martial arts action than what The Grandmaster provides. Perhaps it’s fitting that it ends with a sizzle reel of Leung beating up other stage fighters, because basically what The Grandmaster turns out to be is a highlight reel on Ip Man’s legendary life.