What is it about martial arts films that keep people coming back again and again? Is it simply for the fun of seeing two opponents go head-to-head with a variety of cool skills? If that were the case, the genre would have been exhausted years ago, so there must be something more to it. For the answer, you'd most likely have to dig a little deeper, delving into the characters and just what kind of story the film is trying to tell. There have been many such films telling of legends and heroes, with Kar Wai Wong's "The Grandmaster" being one of them, but never have I heard of a filmmaker taking over ten years to bring about such a tale. With such a grand, perfectionist effort being put into it, you would hope that such a film would be one of the most unforgettable entries in its genre. Unfortunately, if you go in expecting that, you're going to be even more disappointed than most.
The film begins as Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang) comes south seeking an heir. He's already found an heir for the North in Ma San (Jin Zhang), but he decides that one must be chosen from the South as well, with the local masters eventually deciding on Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) as their representative. This begins a series of tests that will decide whether or not Ip Man is worthy of the honor, including a test from Gong Yutian's own daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang). Later on, Ma San suddenly betrays and murders Gong Yutian, turning his daughter's thoughts toward revenge. So begins her effort to regain her family's honor by confronting the man who murdered her father.
That may seem like a somewhat confusing summary, but this is exactly how the film plays out. It introduces us to the legendary Ip Man only to sideline him for almost the entire film in favor of Gong Er's revenge tale. If that were its only problem, then it might have gotten away with it, but there are further issues to consider. The story begins in the early 20th century and eventually concludes a few decades later, jumping around every few minutes in the process.
This leads to a film that feels severely fragmented and jarring as it tries to fly around the different time periods to focus on different characters and events. There are parts of the film where you simply have to guess at what's happened in between the jumps in order to make sense of it. For instance, the film starts to focus on another fighter later on at a barber shop, which apparently acts as a front for a martial arts school. However, the character is never developed, nor do we learn much of anything about him, merely making us question what they have to do with the story in the least. Or take Ip Man himself. After his confrontation with Gong Er, we don't see or hear much from him (a victim of his treatment in this story) until we see him turn up at another martial arts school, where he is promptly ignored once again.
A little focus would have done wonders for this film. As it is, Wong seems so obsessed with including so much, that he doesn't get time to say much about anyone at all. If he wanted to make a film about Ip Man, then put the focus there. Tell us how he came to be such an amazing fighter, fill us in on the details of his life. Don't call the film "The Grandmaster" only to end up putting the majority of the focus elsewhere. If he wanted to make a film about Gong Er's quest for revenge, make a film about that and cut out the parts that aren't needed. Either of these ideas would have more than likely made a great film, but trying to throw everything together simply doesn't work the way Wong wants it to.
As this is a martial arts film, the fight scenes must also be discussed. If Wong wasn't going to be able to bring focus to the story, hopefully he would at least put a little of his own focus on the hand-to-hand battles. Sadly, even these are a disappointment. For the most part, they are extremely repetitive and lack the normal excitement one gets from such scenes. Wong seems more preoccupied with the coolness factor, which is clearly evident in his need to show us every other move in slow motion, instead of trying to make these fights more entertaining or original.
Perhaps the most detrimental issue the film faces is the fact that it drags on for an extra 30 minutes after the main plot has wrapped up. There are no further plot developments to be had at this point, so if you do end up seeing the film despite these numerous warnings, feel free to leave at about the 100-minute mark to save yourself a little time. If you do somehow end up caring enough to find out what happened to the characters after the confrontation between Gong Er and Ma San (information presented in caption form at the end of the film), simply look it up on Wikipedia or numerous other information websites.
It really is sad that Wong spent so long putting this film together only to have it be such a mess. It's such a beautiful film to look at, but there's just not much else here. With so many years spent on it, Wong should have been able to see that the structure wasn't coming together and that his characters needed further work. For those who know nothing of this Grandmaster, when all is said and done, you'll unfortunately remain just as ignorant of his accomplishments as before. 2/4 stars.
Now playing in limited release.
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