The Grandmaster
DIRECTOR: Wong Kar Wai
CAST: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Zang Jin, Wang Qingxiang
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
RATING: ****


INSPIRED by the life of legendary kung fu master, Ip Man, The Grandmaster is sweeping, highly stylised and gorgeously lensed, commercially accessible, yet oh so arthouse.

On the one hand it is the life story of a Wing Chun kung fu master so it contains lots of fight scenes, but it is also an exploration of the philosophy behind Chinese martial arts.

The love story plot is muddled, but this film is just such a Wong Kar Wai moment. He is a director who will turn a character walking down a train platform into a dream-like sequence – he is all about creating atmosphere and often uses an almost Expressionist colour palette to create wistful moments – as quickly as he will turn a conversation into a duel of words.

The fight sequences are not as unrealistic (to a Western gaze) as those of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon because this is not a wuxia (heroes usually bound by a code of chivalry) film. Instead they are precisely choreographed and filmed to highlight the dance- like grace of the fighters.

The elegant score includes a very different take on Stabat Mater for soprano and orchestra as well as musical references to scores from other films, like work by Ennio Morricone.

A fight sequence shot in the rain or a solitary training sequence in the snow is a thing of beauty, while the sets are highly detailed and sumptuous costumes help to evoke a bygone era.

Tony Leung makes of Ip Man a dignified character, though he doesn’t do much to expand on Man’s motivations or expectations.

The film starts in Foshan in the 1930s as a master of martial arts from northern China comes south to announce his retirement. While he will be succeeded by Ma San (Jin) in the north, Gong Yutian (Qingxiang) believes the south should have its own heir and Ip Man is eventually chosen as the representative.

The fight between the two turns out to be of a philosophical nature, but it is when Ip Man meets the master’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang), that we get to see two grandmasters show their fighting skills.

The film is narrated as Ip Man’s story, but halfway through, Gong Er’s tragic decision to forgo the chance at a family of her own to seek revenge for her father’s death is foregrounded. Then that plot point starts to take over. Unfortunately, her choices and actions are not explored enough, so the film never really has one strong arc to drive it narratively.

Another Kar Wei trademark is improvising and experimenting instead of working to a fixed script, which shows in which person’s story anchors the plot, which is to say no one story does with this film.

Ip’s wife, Cheung Wing-sing (Song Hye-kyo), disappears halfway through the film, which is too bad because she was shaping up to be something interesting, and bad guy Ma San (Jin) – who sells his soul to the Japanese invaders – is never fully explored.

The context of the Sino-Japanese war of the 1930s is fascinating, but again not explored too much, nor is the Chinese world of 1 000-year-old dynasties or life-long dedication to perfecting specific arts.

Eventually, the story becomes as much an atmospheric lament about what has been lost, as it is a kinetic celebration of how kung fu adapted to the changing times.

Gong Er lets go of her family’s multi-generational and rich history, while Ip Man adapts to the vagaries of the modern world, pitting against each other two very different but equally valid ways of looking at the world.

If you liked Ashes of Time or In the Mood For Love you will like this.