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Note: This is a review of the Chinese cut of “The Grandmaster” (currently available through Yesasia.com). The version of the film opening Stateside this Friday is, in my opinion, an inferior copy. If you must watch it, do so, and if you like what you saw, buy the Blu-ray from Yesasia. I promise you, it will only enhance your experience of the movie.
Three years in the making (first promo stills from the film surfaced way back in 2010), Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster”, his entry into the congested Ip Man bio pic market, feels like three movies edited down into one film. The result is at times floundering, at times brilliant, but always visually exhilarating. Less the character study of the man who mentored Bruce Lee (pretty much what Ip Man’s life has amounted to these days), “The Grandmaster” works better as a movie about life and the complicated paths we choose, told through the conflicts, ambitions, and obsessions of its characters. In this case, the characters all happen to be really good at kicking ass — usually in inclement weather, and featuring stellar action choreography by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping.
Truth is, I’ve been waiting for Wong to get back into the martial arts groove ever since 1994’s “Ashes of Time”, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint. While the film is ostensibly about the life and times of its title character, played by familiar Wong muse Tony Leung Chiu Wai, it’s really the presence of Zhang Ziyi that gives the movie its lifeline. There is a whole middle section of “The Grandmaster” where it is entirely Ziyi’s story, with her character Gong Er, a wronged kung fu master in her own right, seeking vengeance against the man who crossed her family. Her decisions have a profound impact on her past, present and future, and is both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch. Ziyi is fantastic in the role, and it’s really her arc that captivates in every frame.
As for Ip Man, it’s an interesting life, filled with kung fu battles and challenges, but don’t expect the Wing Chun practitioner to save the world. In a lot of ways, this is the most normal Ip Man to hit the screens yet, and although his skills are out of this world, he’s no superhero. Ip Man spends most of his time away from home, chatting it up with other like-minded kung fu masters at a brothel that, curiously, we never see any of them partake in. He does this at the expense of his long-suffering wife, played by South Korean actress Hye-kyo Song. It is, frankly, a pretty sweet life. Things change, though, when Wong Er enters the scene, and Ip Man is instantly smitten. Alas, Wong Er has no time for romance — not with Ip Man, and certainly not with a criminal named The Razor (Chen Chang, Zhang’s co-star from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”).
At one point, I assume Chang’s character had a bigger role in the movie. (The initial cut of the film was reportedly over 4 hours long.) Here, though, Chang is in only a handful of scenes, and all except one feels somewhat tacked on, as if Wong Kar Wai shot all of Chang’s fight scenes and just couldn’t bring himself to leave them on the cutting room floor. As a result, the Razor’s presence is a bit incongruous with the rest of the film. On the bright side, the character certainly adds to the action quotient, with a number of powerful throwdowns that makes you wish he had crossed paths with Ip Man so the two could pit their very different styles against one another. There are a lot of similarly tangential relationships in “The Grandmaster”, and while not all are successfully told, they’re always fascinating to watch.
It goes without saying that a Wong Kar Wai movie won’t be like anything you’ve seen before. Even if the director didn’t enter the fray intent on making a very different Ip Man movie, the results are the same. No, Ip Man doesn’t single-handedly beat the Japanese and win World War II. And no, he doesn’t wipe out whole Triad organizations in Hong Kong. Watching “The Grandmaster”, I got the feeling that between when he started shooting the film to when he finally finished it 3 years later, Wong discovered a new movie, one that wasn’t entirely focused on Ip Man. You’ll realize this when Zhang Ziyi begins dominating the screentime around the halfway mark. I don’t think most people will mind, though, as Wong Er’s story is way more interesting than Ip Man’s gradual stroll through Chinese history.
“The Grandmaster” is art house meets kung fu. It’s the kind of movie that will play well with film critics, and fans of Wong Kar Wai will get to see the director tackle a genre he hasn’t touched since “Ashes of Time”, while still maintaining his overall aesthetics and unhurried storytelling pace. If those two things are not your cup of tea, I would steer clear. But if you saw “2046” or “In the Mood for Love” and thought, “You know what, some kung fu here would be totally cool!”, then “The Grandmaster” is the movie you’ve been waiting for. There is enough action for two movies, and the performances are all spot-on, with a big tip of the hat to Zhang Ziyi. “The Grandmaster” detours greatly from the rest of the Ip Man films, in that it dares to tell a story where the central figure is almost a passive observer in the events of the world, rather than someone who actively affects it. That’s a pretty bold choice. Then again, it’s Wong Kar Wai, so I didn’t expect anything less.
Wong Kar Wai (director) / Wong Kar Wai, Haofeng Xu, Jingzhi Zou (screenplay)
CAST: Ziyi Zhang … Gong Er
Tony Leung Chiu Wai … Ip Man
Cung Le … Tiexieqi
Hye-kyo Song … Cheung Wing-sing
Chen Chang … The Razor Yixiantian
Woo-ping Yuen … Chan Wah-shun