Director: Wong Kar Wai
Screenplay: Zou Jingzhi Xu Haofeng & Wong Kar Wai
Starring: Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan
Country: Hong Kong/China
Running Time: 104 mins
BBFC Classification: 15
Chinese auteur Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express) returns after a hiatus of six years with this lavish looking Kung Fu melodrama, which chronicles the life of legendary Kung Fu master Ip Man, played here by Tony Leung.
The tale begins in 1936 in Loshan, South China, when one of Ip Man’s Kung Fu challenge victories sparks a rivalry (and an at a distance unrequited romance) with another grandmaster’s daughter, played by the lovely Ziyi Zhang. When war breaks out a few years later, with the Japanese, Ip Man loses all his wealth and must survive as best he can and try to reconnect with, possibly, the love of his life.
Later, in 1950, following the deaths of his wife and two of his daughters he moves to Hong Kong and tries to set up a school to teach Win Chun, but is met with some hostility from local masters. But this film is also very much about Gong Er, the woman he falls in love with, through fighting with her, and about her struggles and revenge against the man who killed her father.
The Grandmaster is a difficult film to qualify, in that it is obviously a Kung Fu film made for the art-house crowd, a little like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And speaking of that film, legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping has orchestrated the fights here too, with somewhat mixed results. I found many of the fast cuts and close up shots rather spoiled the flow of some of the fights.
For me this film was more style over substance, with its grand set pieces and visual opulence. In fact you could probably freeze frame the film anywhere along its running length and see an image of beauty or at least of interest. However, as a satisfactory re-telling of the story of the late, great Ip Man, I’m rather less convinced.
The director, Wong Kar Wai, said in a recent interview with Michelle Lhooq (for filmmakermagazine.com) that he had wanted Chinese people to see the film and be encouraged to revisit their own heritage. And I think this is the point; very little in The Grandmaster can be easily digested by Westerners and it is as much about Chinese culture, ceremony and heritage as it is about Ip Man, which makes it quite hard going at times. Having said that I did find the film to be interesting and emotionally engaging; although I did find it overly worthy at times…
Being a martial artist myself I found some of Ip Man’s philosophies of particular interest including his summary that it all really boils down to two things, the horizontal and the vertical. ‘If you make a mistake’ he says, ‘you’re horizontal!’ He also goes on to say that Kung Fu can be boiled down to three moves, namely ‘Spade’, ‘Pin’ and ‘Sheath’, which he then admirably goes onto demonstrate on yet another unfortunate challenger.
The Grandmaster is a relatively slow-paced film and I’m kind of glad I saw the shorter version which is aimed predominantly at us Gwailo, rather than the longer cut aimed at the Chinese.
To complement the stunning visuals I found the film’s score to be rather haunting and it certainly enhances the film’s central theme of loves lost in the mists of time. And the production and costume designers have both done outstanding work here, with everything looking suitably period and a treat on the eyes. Plus Philippe Le Sourd, the DoP must be congratulated on the whole ‘look’ of the film, which, as I’ve already said, is simply sumptuous.
However, despite the fact that Tony Leung actually looks more like the real Ip Man than, say, Donnie Yen, by the end of this film I didn’t really feel I had gotten to know Ip Man any more than before, and that’s a shame.
The Grandmaster has recently been released on DVD and BluRay, and is being distributed by Metrodome Distribution. There were sadly no special features on the disc except for a couple of trailers for other recent Metrodome releases, namely Dragon and The Guillotines.