“The Grandmaster” tells the story of the legendary martial-arts master, Ip Man (or Yip Man or Yip Kai-man), or as he is known in the United States, the guy who trained Bruce Lee. It is a kung-fu film that is heavy on the drama and light on the mysticism, making it one of the classiest martial-art movies I’ve seen. It may not have as much fighting as some genre fans would like, but the action sequences it does have are extremely well produced.
The Grandmaster is written and directed by Chinese filmmaker Kar Wai Wong and stars Barack Obama look-a-like, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, as Yip Man. The film also stars Chinese treasure Ziyi Zhang, who you will remember as a feisty fighter from “House of Flying Daggers” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” as Yip Man’s kindred spirit, unfulfilled love interest and sometimes opponent, Gong Er. Jin Zhang plays the bad guy in the film, Ma San, and he has some of the best fight sequences.
Renowned American director, Martin Scorsese, recently attached his name as a supporter of The Grandmaster film, in the same way we’ve seen Quentin Tarantino get behind some genre films in recent years, in order to garner attention from American audiences who might otherwise pass the film by. And it’s easy to see why Scorsese would lend his moniker to Kar Wai Wong’s movie as both directors share a penchant for unconventional narratives that take place in another era.
I’m not going to pretend to completely understand the plot of The Grandmaster and despite surface sophistication it still seemed to me to have the trappings of a standard kung-fu flick. That is, the North claims their kung-fu style is better than the South, and the South sends their best man, Ip Man, to try and dethrone the Northern Master, who wants to retire his title.
The Northern Master’s daughter, Gong Er, then attempts to regain the title from Ip Man, and after fighting the two find mutual respect for each other and become lifelong friends. Gong Er also pursues Ma San, who has killed her father and claimed his legacy. In the midst of all this the Japanese invade China and Ip Man’s family is killed. After the war he lives in exile in Hong Kong and rekindles his relationship with Gong Er while becoming a famed martial-arts instructor.
I’m sure there will be martial-arts purists who scoff at my simplistic plot description, but even though “The Grandmaster” has an attractive elegance to it, the debate over which kung-fu style is best, while amusing, makes for a rather run-of-the-mill story. (I’m certain I’m missing some nuances due to language and cultural barriers at work here as well.)
As director Kar Wai Wong moves his story back and forth across twentieth-century China time and space, I became a little confused regarding Ip Man’s love interest and at one point thought he was married to Gong Er, which made for some head-scratching until I realized that wasn’t the case at all. It might just be me, but trying to keep track of the action while reading the subtitles, coupled with the unorthodox narrative, made for some slight confusion.
As mentioned, there is a lot of drama in this movie, and a lot of tears, especially for this genre of film, which lead me to think at one point, “There’s no crying in kung-fu!” The point being, if you are going into this film expecting wall-to-wall action, you are going to be disappointed. But if you are patient, you will be rewarded with some of the most realistic looking and beautifully filmed fight-sequences you’ve ever seen.
My favorite part of this movie, a sequence that is, alone, worth the price of admission, is the battle between Gong Er and Ma San that takes place at a train station with snow falling and a moving train in the background. Not only is the action top-notch, the set-up and outcome are all delivered in a magnificent manner. This awesome 10 minutes of action goes on my list as one of the greatest film fights ever created.
On the not-so-great side, there is a blurred-motion effect that happens for the entire length of the film, even when there is no action and no appropriate reason to use it. This trick is used in an undisciplined manner and gets old fast, distracting from the otherwise first-rate cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd. If you are a kung-fu film fan, then you no doubt already plan to see this movie, for everyone else, it’s certainly worth checking out for its unique style and fantastic action choreography. The drama in-between is a little shaky and over-complicated, but if you feel the movie is short a fight or two, just stay until after the first run of credits for a nice surprise.