Director Wong Kar Wai, notorious for his abstract narratives and expressive aesthetic, presents his most mainstream effort yet with The Grandmaster. The story of the legendary martial arts master Ip Man is known throughout most of the world, popularized here in the States thanks to Netflix and the many film versions of his tale that have become hits in the video streaming market. But more pertinent, I imagine, is unraveling the past of the real-life hero who eventually took Bruce Lee on as his student. While The Grandmaster doesn’t touch upon the training Lee underwent, it does chronicle an important period of Ip Man’s life when martial arts and China were both on the precipice of utter ruin. Set between the late 1930s and early 1950s, The Grandmaster demonstrates how the invasion of Japan tragically deteriorated ancient Chinese traditions. The past becomes but a golden memory for many famous Chinese martial artists, whose priorities have changed to survival or, in some cases, collaboration with their Japanese occupants to squash the relics of old for good. While politics and history are paramount to this massive tale’s success, Wong Kar Wai knows who his audience is and doesn’t fail in the action department. The Grandmaster is action-packed poetry in motion, a stunning work of art in which the combat is the story.
The Grandmaster begins its grand anecdote with the last major ritual of China’s ancient martial arts community: the celebration of a Grandmaster’s long service to the martial arts world before passing on the torch to the next in line. Having just been invaded by the Japanese in the northeast area known as Manchuria, Grandmaster Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang) knows that time truly is of the essence. About to go into retirement, Gong has recently chosen a successor per tradition but knows these long-established ways will soon have no value once Japan takes over the Northern region entirely. He hopes to keep kung fu alive, along with all of its life lessons that go hand in hand, by passing his wisdom and teachings onto someone who would nobly uphold China’s martial arts legacy despite Japanese occupation. Gong acquiesces to the law that states his successor most come from his region in the North, but knows full well that his replacement — known simply as “The Razor” (Chang Chen) — has a weak and greedy mind that is susceptible to corruption. So it is with great enthusiasm and necessity that Grandmaster Gong heads off to the southern region of Foshan where his retirement celebration will take place, hoping to challenge Grandmaster Ip Man of the South (Tony Leung) and see if he has the strength of body and soul to assist kung fu in weathering out the storm of imminent change.
Coming along for the journey is the young, impressionable, and deeply committed daughter of Grandmaster Gong, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang). Thanks to the sexist laws that govern ancient tradition, Gong Er cannot be named her father’s successor because of her gender. However, she is unwilling to share the family’s deadly “64 Hands” technique unless a worthy opponent defeats her in sanctioned combat. After Ip Man makes it through trial after trial — defeating all of the Northern martial artists and even one-upping Grandmaster Gong himself in a mental challenge of the highest order — his final stop is a duel with Gong Er, who finds herself romantically drawn to Ip Man. The disappointing results of that fight lead Gong Er to believe Ip Man may not be the legend that her father holds in such high esteem. As such, Gong Er and her father leave Foshan without sharing their secret technique with Ip Man. And with that, the fate of kung fu hangs in the balance, its survival uncertain now that the Japanese invaders have begun their purge of Chinese culture.
Years go by, traditions slowly fall by the wayside, and China is no longer the tranquil and harmonious country it once was. Gong Er makes an enormous sacrifice that changes her life’s existence for good, while Ip Man is forced to flee to the North once Foshan is finally invaded and disaster strikes his homeland. When the two meet up two decades later, the film transitions to a set of flashbacks that are heartbreaking, revelatory, and as visually intense as anything you’ll see. Renowned choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) creates some of his most elaborate fight sequences ever, specifically a gorgeously constructed duel at a train station.
As far as The Grandmaster goes, the plot is much easier to digest and is more accessible than Wong Kar Wai’s other works (has anyone seen the jigsaw puzzle that is Ashes of Time?), but it lacks Wong Kar Wai’s auteur stamp of overblown uniqueness. The fight scenes have a beautiful push-pull rhythm to them, and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s use of close-up is both jarring and effective, amplifying the tension and emotions that run high from the duelists. The editing, however, is a bit choppy and problematic. Absent are seamlessly shot fight sequences that put all of the action in a single, two-shot frame a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Instead, the action is broken up and filmed at such close proximity that it can be difficult to see what exactly is happening. This is a stylistic choice, certainly, but one that can often be difficult for the eyes to fully comprehend.
Leung’s dry performance is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of The Grandmaster. Rather than emoting genuinely, he often is seen either brooding or posturing for maximum effect. We get he’s playing a bad-ass, but I was more interested in the human side of Ip Man, not the superhero one. Ziyi Zhang, thankfully, dominates the film by investing her entire being into Gong Er’s suffering. She’s as tragic a character as they come, but Zhang’s beauty and strength emanate through, not unlike her breakout turn in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I sincerely hope The Weinstein Company gives her a “Best Actress” campaign. It’s a tough field this year as we all know, and Zhang only stresses this point by churning out an extraordinary performance that aches the heart and exhilarates the senses.
In sum, Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster takes us on a ride entrenched with history and populated by fanciful fight sequences. Amidst the frenetic atmosphere, Kar Wai’s script that he penned alongside fellow writers Zou Jingzhi and Xu Haofeng is surprisingly compact and occasionally quite touching. Is this the ideal story of Ip Man many were hoping for? Perhaps not, as I’m sure more than a few moviegoers will be disappointed that there’s really no origin story or even an interesting subplot concerning Bruce Lee’s training as a pupil of Ip Man’s. In fact, the film becomes less about Ip Man and more about Gong Er and the personal demons she faces — not that I’m complaining, mind you, but it must be pointed out that Ip Man’s biographical tale becomes marginalized the further along the film progresses. While not Kar Wai’s most auteur-driven effort, kudos must still be given for scoring huge at the international box office thus far. I hope this plays just as well in America as it did (and continues to do) overseas.
The Weinstein Company is in charge of international distribution and is working in conjunction with Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures for the U.S. release. The Grandmaster opens today, August 23rd, in select U.S. theaters (Los Angeles and New York), and will expand nationwide next week. Be sure to check it out, as it could very well be an awards contender in the “Best Foreign Language Film” category at next year’s Oscars®. Here’s the trailer as well: