Famed Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai brings the story of legendary martial arts instructor, Ip Man (Tony Leung) to the big screen in ‘The Grandmaster.’ Part Kung Fu film and part-romantic epic, the film is full of lush cinematic scenes that sometimes lack clarity (especially for American audiences), often leaving the viewer feeling less than satisfied from the grand presentation.
This adaptation of the story of Ip Man (who would later become most famous for being Bruce Lee’s teacher) begins in 1930’s China where schools of martial arts have historically been divided into Northern and Southern styles. The current elderly Northern master, Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang), has already named a Northern replacement but now seeks a Southern successor. Mr. Ip, a man of wealth and leisure from the South who is supremely trained in the specialized fighting art of Wing Chung, may be the man for the job.
Master Gong Yutian meets Ip in a much anticipated battle that culminates in Ip’s favor, but interestingly, the fight ends more with allegory than climax. Gong Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ fame), a elite fighter trained by her father (but who cannot assume the mantle of master because of her gender), soon challenges Ip in an attempt to redeem her family’s honor. Their ‘love at first fight’ plays out like a highly emotional, romantic dance, as Ip and Gong Er appear mutually attracted to each other’s nearly superhuman martial arts abilities. But, the continuation of the attraction, is soon stalled. Much of the rest of the film involves flashes (both backward and forward) for Ip and Gong Er, whose paths and destinies change significantly due to the Japanese invasion and continued devastation of China.
Wong Kar-wai has brought a beautiful vision of China to the big screen. In particular, the film’s initial Kung Fu scene, a non-stop nighttime fight with Ip (in his white fedora) versus endless assailants in pouring rain is strikingly awesome. The scene, although in color, is almost perceived in black-and-white, as the director focuses on hands, rain, and long bodies in dark clothes and shadow. Stunt coordinator Yuen Woo-ping’s (coordinator of ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Crouching Tiger’) brings true mastery, and even wonder, to several crafted scenes of largely bloodless combat.
What makes the English-subtitled film feel different from other recent martial arts depictions are the fantastical elements of Ip’s otherworldly supreme skill and sensitivity that are pasted against real Chinese history. On-screen explanations of history and clarification of locations/some character names help to decipher some of the goings-on, but the average Western viewer may not be able to fully transcend the cultural gap. Flash-forwards and flashbacks also complicate the storytelling experience, leaving the attempted transcendent biopic quite grounded. Further, the budding romance between Ip and Gong Er, although initially captivating during their ‘fight,’ never really catches fire and is unable to take on the epic proportion it could have had.
Although often beautifully filmed, the movie comes across often as a series of gorgeous scenes that never fully have the gravitas and clarity that were likely intended. ‘The Grandmaster’ is rated 3 of 5 stars (‘mildly recommended’). ‘The Grandmaster’ is rated ‘PG-13 for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language.’
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