Operatic and balletic, “The Grandmaster” is a sight for the senses, but not always easy to follow.
“The Grandmaster” is directed by Kar Wai Wong with screenplay by Wong, Jingzhi Zou and Haofeng Xu and martial arts choreography by acclaimed Yuen Woo-pingis. The film is the story of legendary Ip Man, martial artist extraordinaire, who, among his many accomplishments, is known for training Bruce Lee.
The film’s opening scene is one long, spectacular fight sequence. Shot in the dark, you’ll see smoke and blurred images, but the fighters stand out front and center. And the sounds! You’ll actually hear bones crunching. It’s amazing. We learn that one of the men is Ip Man wearing his traditional fedora as he fights. Then narration takes over as we begin to learn the back story of martial arts and Ip Man.
Ip Man led a fascinating life. To understand how some of that life came to be is almost like watching a lesson in Japanese-Chinese history. His journey to greatness begins in 1936 China. There are two styles of martial arts—one style in the north and one in the south. Ip Man fought in the style of the south. To practice one form is almost like being a member of a highly trained gang. There is a lot of violence as to who makes it to the top of the practice. When Gong Yutian, a martial arts master from the north retires, he decrees that the south should also have a master. After a series of fights, Ip Man emerges triumphant. He is then challenged by Gong Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er…a fight that she wins. However, as a woman she is not allowed to become a Master. The two remain friends. Ip Man returns to the south where he marries and raises a family. It would give too much away to go into details, but a large portion of Ip Man’s life is horrific. Unspeakable things happen to him and to his family in the brutal war with Japan. Eventually Ip Man moves to Hong Kong, where after many years of proving himself, he earns a reputation as a great teacher. It is in Hong Kong where Ip Man meets the young Bruce Lee and becomes his teacher.
Tony Leung as Ip Man inhabits his character seamlessly. He seems to have nailed the martial arts portion of the film. It’s been reported that he spent three years studying martial arts and if true, the time was well spent. Leung captures the intricacies of the form as well as the confidence of knowing what he is doing. But as good as he is in the physicality of his role, he is equally good in the scenes with his wife and children and most especially with Gong Er.
Ziyi Zhang as Gong Er is simply amazing. So small and yet so strong, her fight scenes will leave you breathless. But she also excels in the intimate scenes with her father and with Ip Man. And does she ever have command of her facial expressions during those sequences.
Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s photography is astounding. Particularly beautiful are the shots of Ziyi Zhang as Gong Er twirling in the white snow. Dressed in all black with a black Cossack hat, Ziyi Zhang and the scene in general are simply gorgeous.
Director Kar Wai Wong goes back and forth in time in his film and some of this can be confusing, especially when you are not familiar with the actors. But Ip Man led an extremely compelling, complicated life and “The Grandmaster” certainly does him justice.