The Grandmaster (2013)
Written by Wong Kar-wai, Zou Jingzhi, and Xu Haofeng
Directed by Wong Kar-wai
Ip Man was a Cantonese master martial artist, specializing Wing Chun. He would go on to become the teacher whom Bruce Lee studied under, but this film focuses on his ascension to becoming a grandmaster and his fall from grace during the Japanese occupation. The film begins in the 1930s when Gong Yutian, the grandmaster under whom the southern and northern schools united announces his retirement. He chooses Ip Man as his heir in the south and Ip goes through a series of challenges to prove his worth. Yutian’s daughter Gong Er feels her family has been dishonored by losing this position and sets out to defeat Ip. She loses but a friendship begins that is cut short when the Japanese invade. Ip loses two children to famine and starvation while Gong Yutian faces betrayal at the hands of former students. The rest of the film tries to incorporate way too many events in Ip Man’s life that it ultimately becomes hard even to keep track of what is going on.
I am a huge fan of Wong Kar-wai; specifically, his 2000 masterpiece In the Mood For Love, one of the most atmospheric and beautifully shot films of our century. The Grandmaster doesn’t fail in being a gorgeous looking film. The opening sequence, a fight in the rain between Ip Man and dozens of combatants is shot with slow motion and carefully planned tight shots. These fight sequences become dreamlike, a great application of Wong Kar-Wai’s poetic sensibilities. The audience can take in each subtle move and blow during the fights in a way that could lead to a great appreciation of the arts part of the martial arts. It’s a shame that the rest of the film becomes so muddled in the details of Ip Man’s life that it never seems to have a focus or drive.
Ip Man is never really developed as a character, focused only on his desire to practice kung fu. So he sort of stands around opining about the philosophy of Kung fu, never playing off the other characters in a meaningful way. This is an even greater shame because Wong Kar-Wai has cast his longtime collaborator Tony Leung. Leung isn’t able to do much with what he’s given, and strangely The Grandmaster becomes a movie about side characters with Ip Man fading in the background.
There are long periods of the film devoted to Gong Er and her battles with the people who betrayed and killed her father and those are more interesting than much else. This helps because the magnetic Zhang Ziyi plays Gong Er. She is starring in a side movie that seems like it would be more interesting than what is going on with Ip Man, a figure who was already in the midst of a film boom in Asian cinema. There’s an argument some defenders of this film, particularly Wong Kar-wai fans, that American audiences aren’t capable of absorbing the nuance and beauty of The Grandmaster. That gatekeeping ignores all the other Wong Kar-Wai films that have found a passionate audience in the States. He’s a pretty beloved director among lovers of arthouse movies.
There’s a lot of the components of a great film present in The Grandmaster; they just weren’t assembled in a way that adds up to something great. I’m no lover of traditional action films, so I welcome interesting new takes on a tired genre of cinema. Moreover, Wong Kar-Wai would seem to be a filmmaker that could blow up action movies and drop something that indeed shifts the paradigm. However, this is just not it.