From world-renowned Chinese director Kar Wai Wong, “The Grandmaster” managed to stay in mainstream theaters across the country for about a month, a feat for any foreign film. Marketing presses that it is “inspired by the true story of Bruce Lee’s master,” but don’t get the wrong idea; “The Grandmaster” is not about Bruce Lee and is unlike any of his films. Kar Wai Wong has continued with the recreation of the martial arts genre of the past decade that has come to the attention of the West, but he adds incredible artistry to every image. Five years after another film on the same subject (“Ip Man”) became popular amongst the kung fu audiences of the U.S., Kar Wai Wong uses his distinctive mark to depict the idol.
A film of opposites, “The Grandmaster” begins as China’s martial arts styles are divided North against South. Honored Master Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang) retires and names Ma San (Jin Zhang) his heir of the North, since his daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) cannot replace him due to her sex, but invites the masters of the South to name a challenger. The various masters name Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) their representative and proceed to share their secrets with him, but Ip Man faces Gong Yutian instead of Ma San after Ma San’s disgraceful, cocky behavior offends his master. When Ip Man proves his worth to Gong Yutian, Gong Er re-challenges Ip Man to restore the family honor she feels is wronged, but she unexpectedly initiates what will become a flirtation that will last her lifetime. Invasion from Japan then divides their nation and destroys both Gong Er and Ip Man’s families; Ma San betrays the teachings of Gong Yutian which leaves Gong Er in a difficult position, and Ip Man loses his wealth, causing him to head to Hong Kong to support his starving family. In Hong Kong, Ip Man works to become a teacher of Wing Chun, while Gong Er becomes a doctor.
Most famous for training Bruce Lee, “The Grandmaster” shows there is more to Ip Man than his celebrated student. From his family life to his struggles with poverty, Ip Man earns admiration as a human and not only as a grandmaster. As Ip Man narrates, his life was like a spring that turned straight to winter, and it was this “winter” period that earns him as much respect as his martial arts prowess. No longer handed an easy, fortunate life, Ip Man still succeeds. He constantly refers to his motto that winning and losing is separated by vertical and horizontal, and Ip Man constantly rises to life’s challenges.
More of a film of art than fighting, “The Grandmaster” is not a typical kung fu film. Kar Wai Wong’s work is highly stylized, obvious from the opening battle in the rain between Ip Man and approximately a dozen combatants. Kar Wai Wong shows kung fu in a unique light; “The Grandmaster” emphasizes close-ups, especially of the footwork and hand positions of the characters, and the cinematography’s fluid style gives the impression of a moving painting. Unfortunately for fans of Tony Leung, “The Grandmaster” relies on so many close-ups of hand and footwork that Leung’s skillful movement is constantly interrupted by close-ups and new camera shots. Kar Wai Wong presses style to showcase the fighting, but it isn’t as satisfying as an action film.
“The Grandmaster” samples a dramatic, historical vision. Focusing on legacy and union over the opposing sides of North and South, male and female, wealth and poverty, Kar Wai Wong’s “The Grandmaster” is a balanced kung fu film that appeals to mass audiences and has earned its place in the American spotlight, though be forewarned that the drama slows the film’s adrenaline and makes it feel longer.
Rating for “The Grandmaster:” A-
For more information on this film or to view its trailer, click here.
“The Grandmaster” is no longer playing in Columbus but might show up at dollar theaters soon.