Starring: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Song Hye-kyo
Directed by: Wong Kar-Wai (“Happy Together”)
Written by: Wong Kar-Wai (“Happy Together”), Jingzhi Zou (“My Kingdom”) and Haofeng Xu (“Judge Archer”)
In the cinematic world, there has been a sudden influx of interest in the life of legendary martial artist, Ip Man. Perhaps best known as the man who trained martial arts film star Bruce Lee, the past five years have seen several movies based on his life, including an in-progress dramatized Chinese trilogy. As the latest foray into the life of this legendary instructor, director Wong Kar-Wai brings a visual flair, but a lack of narrative focus to “The Grandmaster.”
From the first moments of the film, it is clear that this is merely a snapshot into Ip Man’s life, rather than a full biography. The audience finds Ip Man (Tony Leung) in the 1930s, with quick insight via flashbacks and narration as a sort of summarization of the first 40 years of his life. As the film picks up in the 30s, Northern China martial arts Grandmaster Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) is on the edge of retirement, having named his successor in the North. In an attempt to find an heir in the South, he has the Southern people nominate a worthy opponent to challenge in a fight, who turns out to be Ip Man.
Taking up most of the first third of the film, several masters give Ip a crash course tour of different styles of martial arts in order to prepare him for his battle with Gong Yutain. These scenes are among the most exhilarating of the film as the audience is not only are treated to fantastically stylized and smooth fight sequences, but an insight to the fighting prowess of Ip Man. Unfortunately, the big clash turns out to be an exchange of philosophies and a challenge to break a cake (which Ip is the victor of) rather than the big showdown it purports to be.
From there, the film loses steam and the story moves at an often confusing pace, jumping back and forth between different points in time. We learn more about Ip’s relationship with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) who feels the need reclaim honor to her family after Ip defeated her father as well as Ip’s move to Hong Kong and his struggles to become a martial arts instructor. The scenes of Ip in Hong Kong aren’t particularly interesting and various characters move in and out without making an impact on the story. For example, there are a number of different martial artists who challenge Ip to fights as to question his prowess and style that seemingly serve no other purpose than to jam in more action sequences. In its final act, the film strangely becomes almost entirely focused on Gong Er, her past, and her subsequent reunion with Ip. It’s a curious decision considering not only her on-screen absence, but also the films presentation as a biography on the life of Ip Man.
There is no question that Wong excels at staging and shooting fight sequences that are unique, stylish, and gorgeous to look at. The opening fight sequence which features Ip fighting a rather large number of men in the pouring rain is particularly impressive, with thundering sound effects of flesh on flesh, fantastic choreography and plenty of slow motion footage, often times with intense close ups. But while tight, slow-mo shots of foot placement and movement or artifacts being smashed into pieces might be neat the first few times around, Wang goes to the well a few too many times and the style loses a bit of its flair as the film goes on. Coupled with a narrative that is scattershot, incomplete and overall uninteresting, “The Grandmaster” is a mostly forgettable attempt to tell the story of a legendary martial arts master.