The legacy of martial arts on the big screen is different from the legacy of martial arts in real life, and that’s something The Grandmaster looks to correct.
It’s a visually striking if deliberately paced biopic about Ip Man, the legendary kung fu master perhaps best known for his training of Bruce Lee. That’s not part of this film, which explores various facets of one of China’s most respected fighters and teachers during some tumultuous political times.
The story begins in the 1930s, just before the invasion of China by Japanese forces, when the Wing Chun style of Ip Man (Tony Leung) allows him to become the most feared fighter in southern China, causing him to meet his match in Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the foremost martial-arts master from the north. Later, the families of both Ip Man and Gong Er are torn apart by war, prompting a more friendly reunion in order to regain their honor.
The Grandmaster is a personal project for acclaimed director Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love), who showcases plenty of powerful imagery that often speaks louder than the sparse dialogue.
Whereas the average Hong Kong martial arts film is packed with chop-socky combat sequences, that’s not the case here. Wong is more interested in exploring the artistic side of the craft, including some fascinating vignettes in which Ip Man visits with masters of various martial arts who explain the intricacies of their styles like exhibits in a museum.
Once the action cranks up, the film focuses less on broken bones and shattered windows (although there are instances of both) than it does on carefully choreographed movements more closely resembling a dance than a fight. Wong’s reliance on close-ups and slow motion, however, don’t allow for a wider view of the kicks, chops and punches.
Wong’s screenplay is more problematic in terms of providing context. The film tends to gloss over the potentially intriguing sociopolitical issues within the background in favor of philosophical speeches and romantic glances. Maybe that’s a product of the film being cut by more than 20 minutes prior to its domestic release.
Still, the attention to period detail supplements the unique perspective, and should allow aficionados to gain a greater respect and appreciation for the origins of martial arts through the story of a legend.
Rated PG-13, 108 minutes.