Ever since Ang Lee revived the Martial Arts genre with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000, taking it from the cult-classics of the 70’s which had a lot of action but not much sense, many other filmmakers have followed, most notably Zhang Yimou with his trilogy “Hero” (2002), “House of Flying Daggers” (2004) and “Curse of the Golden Flower” (2006) and now Kar Wai Wong.
If you have followed Kar Wai’s film career you’ll know we’re talking about a filmmaker with more sensibility towards introspective dramas and an obsessive interest in ambiance and mood (Even one of his greatest achievements has that idea on its title: “In the Mood for Love”). So, the marriage between abstract introspection, mood, and martial arts might prove interesting to the avid fan and to the moviegoers looking for more than mindless entertainment. If you’re looking for a Martial Arts Blockbuster, this is not a film for you, and judging by the results of films like “The Man with the Iron Fists” (2012), fans are not responding to these offerings with the enthusiasm Hollywood expect.
On top of this, the film is being sold as the story of Ip Man, the great Wing Chun grandmaster and mentor to world famous Bruce Lee, and on this basis, it is showing in multiplexes, along with “The Wolverine” and “Getaway”, when in reality, this is not your typical Kill-Bill kind of film that takes out all the “boring” parts and gives you the punches. And even, as a biopic, it does not deliver, since it does not follow a structure that will give you and idea of who Ip Man was. And Bruce Lee becomes just a nameless child by the end…if you can infer he’s somewhere in the crowd, of course.
So, if this film is none of the above, then what is it, you might ask? It is, again, a film about mood and details. It begins with a fight, yes, but it is more interested in the rain that happens around it: the drops of water, the reflections on the puddles, the texture, the water flying in different directions and creating a kinetic art piece. Inside this milieu, Ip Man is a man dressed in black with his white hat always intact, not by pure positioning like any James Bond coming out of a fight well coifed, but as a man so balanced and calculating that he could start a fight in a glass store and not break a single item. And if you’re not looking for style, but content, then the film will offer you a clever inside feel of the different Martial Arts styles that were created and merged, as if they were more a religion or a code of conduct, identifying the many grandmasters and mentors and how they survived the Japanese invasion of China, which changed the curse of tradition forever.
Ip Man, played by Tony Leung is a full-grown, mysterious figure. Kar Wai does not give you much background on where he comes from, but he does underline his power and will, as he becomes the hope for the grandmasters of the south. When the moment comes to face the grandmasters of the North, he simply retracts, choosing a united country, and becoming a teacher to many instead. This is a very precise man, who reflects that each part of his life can be compared to a season, jumping from his springtime, with his wife and children, right to the winter where he moves to Hong Kong and loss and despair are the rule of the day.
As in Ang Lee’s film, Kar Wai’s develops another story that takes central stage as the main one, almost like making 2 films into one. In this case, Gong Er (played by Ziyi Zhang), a girl taught by her father in the martial arts. She crosses Ip Man’s path and challenge him. But then she will continue her path towards revenge. But this is simply a story that made it to the “American” version, which is 108 minutes long. There is a 4-hour plus version that I’m certain develops more of the web of martial artists, giving a full view of Ip Man’s life. We were lucky when distributors let us enjoy Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” in its entirety, but will have to wait for the DVD to actually see the whole film Kar Wai intended.
There is a revealing publicly intimate scene between Ip Man and Gong Er where she reveals her feelings for him. Kar Wai is careful to frame their faces separately, with Tony Leung always looking into the woman’s eyes, but Ziyi Zhang stares a little down, never to him, but to the regrets and failed opportunities. It is a simple sequence but charged with romance and sadness, played masterfully by these two actors.
So, The Grandmaster will disappoint you if you’re looking for an arch-driven story in which the action scenes happen to raise the adrenaline. These scenes are, of course, breathtaking since they are choreographed by master Woo-ping Yue (“Iron Monkey”, “Kill Bill: 2” “Kung Fu Hustle” among others) but Kar Wai tends to move the camera to objects and places, the sound to the breeze and a step. Instead of a full-action fight, he gives you position and meditation, which is the core of all Martial Arts. This is where the film becomes grand.