Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Stars: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Qingxiang Wang, Zhang Jin.
We have seen several films already charting the early exploits of Ip Man, the legendary Chinese kung-fu master who taught the young Bruce Lee. In a couple of the films he was played by action star Donnie Yen, who had a credible physical presence to carry off the role. Yen’s films were more accessible and crowd pleasing than this biopic from revered art house director Wong Kar Wai. The dramatic elements somehow seem lacking, and there is also a lack of character detail. Under the measured, stylish direction of Kar Wai, The Grandmaster is not your typical kung-fu film.
Kar Wai was probably the wrong director for this martial arts centric film as he brings more of a leisurely and contemplative pace to the material. He has a wonderfully seductive and rich visual style, and films like In The Mood For Love, My Blueberry Nights and 2046, etc are visually sumptuous, richly textured, elegiac and elegant mood pieces. Kar Wai normally collaborated with Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle on the exquisite poetic look of his films, until they parted ways.
Here he is working with ace French cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd (A Good Year, etc), who captures some striking images and seems to complement the director’s visual aesthetic perfectly. One of the highlights is the rain spattered fight sequence shot in a sequence of slow motion shots. But the way in which Le Sourd and Kar Wai concentrate on minor visual details rather than the brutal action of the fight itself lends a perfunctory quality to these scenes.
Here veteran actor Tony Leung, a regular in Wong Kar Wai’s films, steps into the role of Ip Man, and he brings more of a brooding quality to the character. Ip Man apparently began training at the age of seven, mastered the fighting style known as Wing Chun, and apparently never lost a fight. Following an old tradition in which champion fighters from the north and south of China fought for honour and prestige, Ip Man is chosen to tackle the best fighter put forward by the Grandmaster (Qingxiang Wang) who is set to retire.
A parallel narrative strain follows the Grandmaster’s granddaughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) as she sets out to avenge the murder of her father at the hands of Ma San (Zhang Jin), his ex-protege, and restore honour to her family. And at times this subplot takes precedence, almost relegating Ip Man to the status of a supporting player in his own biopic. This subplot exploring the unrequited romantic tension between Ip Man and Gong Er adds a melancholy atmosphere, subtle undercurrents of suppressed emotions and a haunting sense of longing to proceedings.
But there is a disjointed and episodic feel to the material. The film covers the period from the late 1930s, when the Japanese invaded China and committed atrocities during the occupation, through to the 1950s, but the sprawling narrative seems to be disjointed and lacks focus. Whether this is a problem with the ambitious script, or a result of a cut down version of the film being released to the international market is unclear. Having reduced the original four hour running time down to 130 minutes for this international version on release necessarily sees some characters and subplots excised from the film.
Technically the film is superb, with gorgeous cinematography, authentic looking period detail and costumes, but dramatically it lacks any real punch (so to speak). But Kar wai’s almost expressionistic take on the material emphasises the atmospheric visuals, introspective musings, and subtle romance ahead of the rousing action, which will disappoint many.
Veteran fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, etc) brings a measured, ballet like precision and gracefulness to the key fight scenes.