“Kung fu – two words – one horizontal, one vertical. If you’re wrong, you’ll be left lying down. If you’re right, you’re left standing. And only the ones standing have the right to talk.” Those opening words sum up director Wong Kar Wai's lavish martial arts epic, ‘The Grandmaster.’ The fight sequences play out like a ballet and are visually stunning. The film is not without its flaws. At times, the story takes on more than it can chew and the narrative feels disjointed. Regardless, Wong is such a master stylist that he has crafted ‘The Grandmaster’ into a captivating film to watch.
It is a biopic of Ip Man (Tony Leung), martial arts master who spread a style of kung fu called Wing Chun around the world and was famous for teaching the legendary Bruce Lee. The story starts in 1936 before the Japanese invasion. It is a divided China devoted to different styles of kung fu. The opening fight sequence is dazzling. It shows Ip Man take on dozens of streetfighters alone in a dark, rain-swept alley. Wearing a white Fedora hat, he masterfully takes down one opponent after another with little effort. Thanks to the choreography of Yuen Wo Ping (Kill Bill) and the superb cinematography of Philippe Le Sound, the thrilling fight scenes are powerful and hallucinatory.
It so happens many students of Kung fu battle each other to see who will be chosen as the grandmaster of the South. Obviously, Ip man is the hands-down favorite. When the retiring martial arts master of the North Gong Yutian (Wang Quinxiang) loses to Ip man, Gong’s daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) challenges Ip man in order to restore her clan’s reputation. Even though, she is the only one who knows her father’s “64 Hands” fighting technique, women were forbidden to participate in martial arts back then. Gong Er proves to be a formidable opponent but more importantly shows a longing and unrequited love between her and Ip Man.
As the film progresses, we see that the story is not just a biopic of Ip Man. Wong captures China’s tumultuous history at the start of the Japanese invasion. This was an important time when the country’s martial artists from North and South competed against each other to respect their family’s legacy. The film is at its best when Ip Man interacts with Gong Er. There is always a bit of sorrow in a Wong film. Ip Man is a happily married man that will not violate his marriage vows. The story then shifts gears and becomes more a Gong Er’s revenge of her father’s murder. She faces off with Ma San (Zhang Jin) who is the grandmaster’s ex-protégé. The elders advise her not to fight and get married. She stubbornly fights Ma San along a railroad station. It is a beautifully choreographed scene as snowflakes softly fall around them.
The version of this film shown at the film festivals was 130 minutes. The current theatrical version distributed by the Weinstein Company runs 108 minutes. Unfortunately, the editing gives the film a choppy feeling. The story is truncated for that reason. Even though the story has its troubles, the film is still a marvel to experience. Wong is one of the most talented artistic directors working today. He gives his films a moody, romantic tone. My favorite film of Wong’s is ‘In the Mood for Love’ also starring Tony Leung. And what can be said about Ziyi Zhang? She is the real star of ‘The Grandmaster’ and her story of revenge actually eclipses Ip Man’s journey.
If you’re a fan of movies like Ang Lee’s masterwork, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ you’ll be thoroughly entertained by ‘The Grandmaster.’ Even if you’re not a fan of the kung fu film genre, Wong’s latest is an ambitious and visual achievement. It is now playing at Edwards Boise 22 Stadium. Check out the official trailer from the Weinstein Company http://youtu.be/_hEYKG6AgbQ.