the grand master
Or: Cineplex Odeon Victoria
With : Tony Leung, Cung Le, Ziyi Zhang
Directed by: Wong Kar-wai
Parental control: PG
Rating: Four out of five stars
The figure of Ip Man, also known as Yip Man, is legendary in Asian martial arts circles. He was the teacher in early 20th century China who led a colorful and combative life, helped popularize the study of wing chun (a form of kung fu), and taught Bruce Lee.
It’s also inspired a veritable cottage industry of movies with settler-heavy titles – The Legend Is Born: Ip Man, Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster and Ip Man: The Final Fight among them – all of which are entertaining but barely transcendent.
That changes now with The Grandmaster, the masterful and beautifully shot biography of Hong Kong director/screenwriter Wong Kar-wai that immediately renders all the Ip Man films that have come before it irrelevant. It ranks along with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers as one of the most stylish and beautiful martial arts films to hit American screens.
But The Grandmaster is as much a love story as it is a battle cry and, while that may disappoint fans who just want wall-to-wall banging, it’s vintage Kar-wai, the man who gave us the arthouse classics In the Mood for Love and Happy Together.
The most well-known incarnation of Ip Man is that of Donnie Yen, who puts on very simple performances in previous films on the subject. In The Grandmaster, famous Hong Kong star Tony Leung (Hard-Boiled, Hero) plays it with a mysterious air. As married Ip Man flirts with a relationship with Er (Ziyi Zhang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Rush Hour 2), the daughter of a martial arts teacher who comes to Ip Man Town in search of worthy adversaries, their story becomes the heart and soul of the film.
The whole enterprise is more about mood and tone than telling us about the life of Ip Man. Anyone waiting for Bruce Lee to make an appearance is in for a serious disappointment.
But, make no mistake, the action scenes – starting with an opening rain fight that’s as much ballet as brawl – are carefully crafted choreography at its finest. Wong Kar-Wai’s films are always magnificent, and The Grandmaster is no exception; never mind that he no longer works with his longtime Australian cinematographer, Christopher Doyle.
Some viewers – especially those looking for just a more detailed biopic or just a series of kinetic stunts – might find this frustrating because the narrative isn’t always linear and the pacing is leisurely. It’s not the standard “chop socky” movie or even “wuxia” (a Chinese story with martial themes usually set in the past). It’s Wong Kar-wai’s clever twist on shapes.
Still, if you only see one Ip Man movie, it’s this one.