The legend of Ip Man is a story that has been told numerous times in the annals and lore of Chinese cinema, but never by one of the best and most visionary directors that the country has ever seen. "The Grandmaster" tackles this tale in a way never seen before from director Wong Kar Wai.
"The Grandmaster" is an epic action feature inspired by the life and times of legendary martial-arts master Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) . The story spans the tumultuous Republican era that followed the fall of China’s last dynasty, a time of chaos, division and war that was also the golden age of Chinese martial arts.
You say directed by Wong Kar Wai in front of any film, and cinephiles will flock to it in droves and with "The Grandmaster" we get a unique blend of his flashy and stunning and visual styles that manages to maintain a certain sense of commercial appeal at the same time. The art direction is immaculate, the cinematography from Phillip Le Sourd and the fight choreography was from the renowned Yuen Woo-ping is some of the best work he has ever done and while Kar Wai has always been known for his flair for the visual, the narrative leaves a little something to be desired.
The story jumps from a time perspective at some fairly random intervals and while it all joins together, it's very loosely as it feels like we are getting vignettes and various snippets from the life and times of the man. Combine that with the explanations and illustrations of different styles that also caused various conflicts at the time between the north and the south. The film was shot in various locations all across the beautiful country side, but I couldn't help but get the feeling that in many ways we were getting a dumber shortened version, "The Grandmaster" Coles Notes.
Veteran actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai certainly has the screen presence to step into the role of Ip Man. More a film about style then the substance, a fair portion of his back story got glossed over, it's not a straight bio pic by the strictest sense of the world and we just get moments of the man's life. It's not enough for the actors to develop any serious character work, but it makes for a narrative that is wanting when you don't have a legitimate connection to the characters. Zhang Ziyi stars opposite him as a rival, an equal and a teased love interest as Gong Er and they have an obvious chemistry on screen, but we never get the chance to invest in the story as we are instead glossing over it.
Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are unquestionably immaculate and the special features on this combo pack includes an extensive look at "The Grandmaster" from Ip Man to Bruce Lee as we see director Wong Kar Wai extensive research into the martial arts, this has numerous interviews with the stars, filmmakers, historians and admirers, narrated by action star Gina Carano, a conversation with Shannon Lee the daughter of Bruce Lee, an extensive behind the scenes look at the making of the film, and an interview with RZA about "The Grandmaster".
At the end of the day, "The Grandmaster" is still more then worth a look as it is an excellent visual and artistic achievement that matches some of his other efforts, but the narrative of the film left me wanting more and I hope that we'll get to see what was left on the cutting room floor as this cut for North American audiences is much shorter than the one that has screened at festivals and for international audiences.
3 out of 5 stars.