The Grandmaster is like a beautiful puzzle with more than few pieces missing
‘The Grandmaster’ has some beautiful scenes, aching performances, and decent choreography, but the story stutters and confuses, leaving you with an overall messy feeling.
Ip Man (or Yip Man, depending on your spelling preference of Chinese) was a fascinating historical figure. Born in the late 19th century in southern China, he became well known for popularizing globally the martial arts school of Wing Chun and also being the teacher of Bruce Lee, someone a few people might remember. But his own life was interesting, as he was a policeman much of his life, fought against the Communist party, and likely had an opium addiction later in life. Naturally, any movie made in China would never include his issues with the Party, like the film Ip Man (and Ip Man 2) starring Donnie Yen, which were highly stylized and fictionalized versions of Ip Man’s life. The movie tended to focus more on the Japanese invaders during WW2 as horrific villains (which to be fair … they kind of were) and were ultimately highly nationalistic. Still, the movies were fun and decent martial arts flicks. This movie isn’t really that sort of thing.
The Grandmaster is the latest from acclaimed and uneven director Wong Kar Wai (2046, among others) and choreographed by the ultimate “wire-fu” expert Yuen Wo Ping. The movie is ostensibly about Ip Man (Tony Leung), but it’s also about Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of Northern kung fu grandmaster Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang). It all goes down during that tense time right before the Japanese invaded, when Gong Baosen is searching for someone from the South that can help him join the two disparate and competitive regions together. A few tightly cut and incredibly stylized fight scenes and philosophical discussions later, Gong Er decides to challenge Ip Man for the honor of her school. Fast forward fifteen years after the war when Ip Man has left his wife and children behind to find his fortune in Hong Kong, he may meet up with Gong Er again and perhaps old … feelings may arise. Flash backwards once more to the story of how Gong Er defended her family’s legacy against the heir to her father’s school. Add in a few brief and brutal fights, one or two very stylized longer ones, and more vaguely romantic speeches, and you have yourself a movie.
This may seem a bit muddled. Well … it is. The original cut of this movie was supposedly four hours long, and this is probably the third editing of it so far. A few subplots come and go with lightning speed, some with subtlety and cleverness, others with confusion and thematic question marks. There is this ongoing subplot of yearning between two people who can never be together alongside the vague historical plot of Ip Man. The real problem is that while I found myself interested in Gong Er’s story, Ip Man seemed more like an observer to her story than the star of his own. Tony Leung did a fine job, of course, as he is a talented actor that can wring emotions out of minor facial twitches and bring relevance to pithy aphorisms. Zhang Ziyi is best described here as “hauntingly beautiful,” and brings a grace and deep tragedy to the role. And although they are both talented physically, everything seems a bit obviously carefully fake after the ridiculously talented Donnie Yen’s performance in that other Ip Man movie. Yes, the movie looks amazing and the actors are all excellent. But the story seems all over the place, and while some scenes pull you in with intensity, others bore you with nothing at all. It’s a fine sort of film, but it’s not quite the epic piece I think it was hoping for.
But I can tell you one thing; now I really want to go rewatch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Did you hear there might be a sequel? I hope not!