Review: THE GRANDMASTER Brings Class to the Ip Man Legend

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong Cinema's most prestigious auteur, finally delivers his long-gestating biopic of Wing Chun pioneer Ip Man, and it proves an action-packed visual feast. Light on narrative, but oozing Wong's trademark elegance, the film weaves the director's familiar themes of love, loss and the corrosive nature of time around some of the most gorgeous martial arts sequences ever filmed.

The Grandmaster has been a project so long in the works that for some it may qualify as the most-anticipated film of the new Millennium. It was way back in 2002 that Wong Kar Wai and leading man Tony Leung Chiu Wai called a press conference to declare their intentions. It was more than 18 months ago that the first teaser trailer for the film was released, featuring - as it transpires - footage from the film's opening scene: a rain-soaked street fight between a trilby-sporting Leung and a dozen faceless assailants. As recently as last month, the film's release date was pushed back (again) from 18 December to early January and Wong was still putting the final touches to the film mere hours before its world premiere in Beijing on 6 January.

The story begins in Foshan province, where at the age of 40, Ip Man (Tony Leung) is happily married to a beautiful, doting wife (Korean actress Song Hye-kyo), lives off a healthy inheritance, and has continued the family legacy of advocating Wing Chun, a simplified yet remarkably effective form of kung-fu. At the Golden Pavilion, a local brothel patronised by many of the region's finest martial artists, North-eastern Grandmaster Gong (Wang Qingxiang) challenges the best Southerner to a fight, before he returns North. After seeing off his rivals from the other local martial arts schools, Ip Man comes forward, only to demonstrate that intelligence and restraint can prove as powerful weapons as kung fu. Ip insists that Northern and Southern martial arts can co-exist peacefully, and Gong leaves humbled, yet satisfied.

Master Gong's daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) is less satisfied, however, and returns to challenge Ip Man herself. During their fight, they share the briefest moment of attraction, awakening a forbidden yearning within them both. Gong Er returns home, only to discover that her father's best student, Ma Shan (Zhang Jin), refuses to accept his master's defeat, and kills him. Gong's dying wish is that the two reconcile and marry, as the last remaining practitioners of Gong's revered 64 Hands technique. However, Gong Er vows to have her revenge.

While it may sound like The Grandmaster features a lot of plot for a Wong Kar Wai film, this really isn't the case. The film spans many years, including the Japanese occupation and Sino-Japanese War, but in a refreshing break from recent Chinese cinematic trends, the conflict goes largely ignored. As with all Wong's films, the characters are the primary focus, and how they struggle to interact through the veneer of society, honour, and their own self-imposed need to starve themselves of happiness.

There is clearly a much longer film here. Reports abound that until very recently, Wong had a four-hour cut of the film, while the version that goes on general release in Hong Kong and China this week clocks in at about 130 minutes. Perhaps the biggest victim of this drastic re-editing is Chang Chen. Given third billing, as well as his own character poster, his character probably only manages about ten minutes of screen time and only appears in three scenes. Zhao Benshan's worldly-wise father figure gets even less screen time to the extent his role in the film proves almost entirely pointless.

Chang's character, known only as "The Razor", is first seen on a train, fleeing from the Chinese army. Bleeding, and brandishing a cutthroat razor blade, Gong Er sees him and instinctively shields him from the search party. This moment teases at a possible romance between the two youngsters, not to mention reunites Zhang and Chang onscreen for the first time since Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We anticipate their next encounter, and how it could complicate Gong Er's relationship with Ip Man, but even after both characters make the move to Hong Kong, The Razor never meets any of the principals again.

Many of the recurring themes that Wong allows to permeate his work resurface in The Grandmaster. Characters have fleeting encounters that are never built upon, but which continue to haunt them for years afterwards. Time proves once again to be everyone's greatest enemy, not only causing people to grow old, but also to forget the things they held most dear - and in this film particularly, the idea that age makes them weak, and less able to defend themselves plagues them relentlessly. Because, of course, for all its melancholy musing and forlorn contemplation, this is a film about martial artists and The Grandmaster is one hell of a beautiful kung fu movie.

Action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping repeatedly dazzles us with his intensity and imagination, staging a number of standout fight sequences throughout the film that are captured exquisitely by Philippe Le Sourd's ravishing cinematography. Screen legends like Bruce Leung Siu Lung and Cung Le push Tony Leung to the limits of his newfound prowess, while Zhang Ziyi and Zhang Jin are also thoroughly convincing fighters on screen. But the staging of the action in The Grandmaster is a far cry from the kung fu in Wong's last martial arts venture, 1994's Ashes of Time. That film instilled a magical quality into its action, coupled with that blurry slo-mo camerawork Chris Doyle favoured at the time. In The Grandmaster, we see everything, and the fights themselves are shot almost as elegant courtships, dictated by ritual, ceremony and mutual respect, or when Zhang's character is involved, a breathless sensuality that only heightens the tension between opponents. Umebayashi Shigeru's gorgeous score is another highlight, complemented by an array of songs and classical pieces ranging from 1950s Canto-pop ballads to Ennio Morricone's theme from Once Upon A Time in America - a film that is evoked on numerous occasions throughout.

While admittedly Wong Kar Wai hasn't set himself a very difficult target, it seems extremely likely that The Grandmaster will prove to be the most financially successful film of his career. The anticipation alone should ensure enough tickets are pre-sold to take him most of the way, but the fact that the film is actually really good to boot should help see it do healthy box office both here and overseas. That said, audiences primed by the Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip collaborations who approach this film looking for another dose of nationalistic breast-beating and old-school chop socky action stand a good chance of leaving disappointed.
 
The Grandmaster remains first and foremost a Wong Kar Wai film, employing a very slow, deliberate pace throughout and dedicates long periods of time to watching its characters ponder the great mysteries of life, or more often, wallow in their own regrets and missed opportunities. But this is interspersed by some truly fantastic action, which should delight kung fu fans and arthouse cinephiles alike. In The Grandmaster, Wong Kar Wai has crafted the best-looking martial arts film since Zhang Yimou's Hero, and the most successful marriage of kung fu and classic romance since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and is more than deserving of that film's measure of international success.
Around the Internet:
  • Any particular reason that this review did not draw up a SINGLE comparison or comment relating to the two Ip Man films starring Donnie Yen? Both the films (especially the first) are quite reknowned and are rather masterful

  • the dude

    THANK YOU. I haven't been able to find any references to the Donnie Yen movies and it's kind of ticking me off.

  • marshy00

    You didn't see this reference in my penultimate paragraph?

    "...audiences primed by the Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip collaborations who approach this film looking for another dose of nationalistic breast-beating and old-school chop socky action stand a good chance of leaving disappointed."

  • Dastickup

    The word i would use to describe this movie is "insufferable". Now i enjoy some of wkw's films and i think Happy Together is truly great, but The Grandmaster he's come to be a parody of himself. All the disjointed voice over now used for exposition instead of reflection, all to tape together the mess of scenes, many of which are utterly pointless, all revolving around an unlikeable protagonist (which is a feat considering Tony Leung is one of the most likeable actors around). But the true crime was the way he filmed the fight scenes, like 90% in Close-up!!! Alot if feet and hands but rarely at the same time. And With the exception of the train fight scene the rest of the fights were staged in what felt like a closet in a very narrow hallway. Yuen woo ping's choreography might have be good but i definitely could not tell. Zhang Ziyi is the movie's only saving grace though it just barely made it past the awkwardness of shoehorning "in the mood for love" into the story of Ip Man. All told i sat in my chair asking myself "when is this going to be over?" The thought of a four hour cut seems like insanity to me.

  • JP

    Has anyone seen this with English subtitles? I am desperately trying to find a way to see this in English

  • JoelCave

    I hear the monkey is the star.

  • methosb

    I watched it the other night. Didn't really like it much. It seemed pretty clear that there was supposed to be another side story with The Razor and more story with Zhang Ziyi's character but they were probably cut to try and trim the film down. The cinematography is mostly pointless unlike previous WKW films. The camera is placed and moved rarely with any purpose. It is more like someone trying to do Doyle without knowing why Doyle did what he did. Also, the film is like 90% in choppy, pointlessly used slow motion.

  • TrumpetMercenary

    FINALLY!!!!!

    I remember reading about them shooting scenes for this in like 2008. Tony broke his arm while practicing Wing Chun with some real practitioners and it delayed filming for quite a while. You know what they say, great things come to those who wait.

  • toshimon

    UK please!

  • blauereiter

    James - Can't wait for this to open in Singapore, just re-watched In The Mood For Love on Criterion recently and look forward to more WKW action.

    On a side note, since you bought up CTHD, I've found it a most polarizing film because some of my friends who usually have the same tastes as me hated it, and I've recalled more than one argument I've gotten into trying defending the film's greatness.

    Ultimately its up to one's taste I think. I love it and find it one of the best Chinese period films, visually arresting and yet full of the subtlety and poetic richness that are the hallmarks of Ang Lee's work.

  • Arthur Vandelay

    Can't wait to watch this! I gotta start a Wong Kar-Wai binge fest.

  • Luca B
  • Dennis

    It's totally a NOT good movie.I don't like it.

  • marshy00

    What didn't you like about it?

  • Saw it last night in Shanghai. The scene between Gong Er and the Razor on the train is haunting me; apparently a fight scene was filmed with Zhang and Chang, but didn't find its way into the final cut (hope it winds up on the DVD). What I took away from it though is that Gong Er's character is the most dynamic and traditionally "heroic" of the three. Even though her family's martial arts legacy dies with her, the Razor's survival and later his establishment of his own school, owes themselves to her intervention. For what is ostensibly an Ip Man biopic, Gong Er is actually the spiritual link in the film, and Leung's character the introspective historian/chronicler.

  • Ard Vijn

    So... about that mysterious "Razor" character. Could that be the same wounded guy we see on the train in 2046? Is Wong Kar Wai having fun here?

  • marshy00

    Knowing WKW I'd say it's definitely possible, but I'd have to go watch that movie again first.

  • Jamaica

    Did Tony Leung give a great acting performance, or could Ip Man have been played by pretty much any decent actor? I'm in US - might be awhile before I get to see it.

  • marshy00

    Yes and Yes. "Acting" in a WKW film can sometimes mean little more than holding a stare or a pose for an extended period of time. Tony Leung is really good, in that effortless way he always is, while his fight scenes show that he clearly knows his wing chun now. Could somebody else have played the part? Maybe. Could "any decent actor" have done it? Who can say? It's kind of a dead-end question, but hopefully I've answered it to your satisfaction ;-)

  • Jamaica Knauer

    Well, I think of Leung's performances in "2046," "Lust, Caution," and "Happy Together" as truly great performances. The "In the Mood for Love," role, while a technically flawless performance, wasn't one that jumped out and grabbed me. It was Maggie who really shone in that film.

    Oh well, thanks for your thoughts on my question. I suppose it's all relative. I'm happy to hear you liked the film. I hope I like it as much, if not better, when I finally get to see it. :-)

  • Leung plays the yin to Zhang's yang in this film; he does through not-doing. Which, ironically, you need a lot of gravitas and on-screen reputation to convey properly.

  • I did see the film on-line in Chinese (too bad my Chinese is in its baby stages), and though I'm disappointed with the film's lack of involvement in Ip Man, I find Leung's performance, as in all other WKW films, flawless, and was oddly surprised to find that his performance was more expressive than Zhang Ziyi's - after reading so many reviews of the film, I sure didn't expect that. She may have more meat to her role, but Leung did more with what he had. Looking forward to seeing it with English subtitles and actually getting the whole story! Lol!

  • Niels Matthijs

    I think you meant to say "best-looking martial arts film since Ye Yan" ;)
    Really looking forward to this, though I'm going to ignore that Crouching Tiger bit at the end.

  • marshy00

    And no, I mean HERO, which was a good five years earlier. All I remember from THE BANQUET was that silly wicker ski ramp.

  • BelmontHeir

    The only thing memorable about The Banquet for me was that it served as my introduction to (the lovely beyond compare) Zhou Xun...otherwise, it felt pretty forgettable. Great review of The Grandmasters, my anticipation has grown.

  • Oh, man. Revisit The Banquet. It's gooooood.

  • marshy00

    You mean CURSE OF THE BLACK SCORPION, right? ;-)

  • That must be the pedo-stache talking because it can't be James.

  • marshy00

    Dude, the stache disappeared as soon as Movember ended - glad to hear it's legend lives on though! :-)

  • It's influence clearly lives on from beyond the grave.

  • marshy00

    I stand by the CTHD comment. No, I don't think that film is a pillar of the genre, but there's no denying it combined martial arts with a classically romantic narrative that proved hugely popular and lucrative.

  • Oh, the flamebait I could come up with over CTHD! One of my least favourite martial arts films ever, in all departments. No, I'm not kidding.

    Fine review despite that, though, James. Great job. Loved the trailers, can't wait to get my chance to see it.

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