It will come as no surprise that Wong Kar Wai’s new epic The Grandmaster is an exquisite-looking film
or that his frequent leading man, Tony Leung, is a quietly compelling presence
in it. What sets this apart from the filmmaker’s ethereal, often elliptical work
of years past is that it documents the true story of a figure popularly known
as The Ip Man, a legend in the world of martial arts who taught Bruce Lee. To
recreate a variety of distinctive martial arts styles and techniques, the fight
sequences have been choreographed by the formidable Yuen Wo Ping, who is well
known for his work on The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
What these facts don’t reveal is that The Grandmaster is more of a biopic than a kung fu movie, concerned
as much with intricacies of Chinese history and philosophy as with action. It
is a sober, often somber, piece of work, as the Ip Man’s life was marked by
considerable frustration and disappointment.
Much has been made about the years of training that Leung
and his costars endured in order to do their own fighting onscreen. Those
scenes are beautifully staged, and each one has particular significance in the
destiny of the leading character and the fate of his country. But they bear
scant resemblance to the rousing, boisterous mayhem of a vintage martial arts
While I admired much of The
Grandmaster, I felt somewhat removed—not the first time I’ve responded that
way to Wong Kar Wai’s pictures. I looked forward to the action set pieces and,
instead, found myself in the midst of a long, largely downbeat story of a man
whose integrity cost him a great deal, personally and professionally, and whose
reputation only solidified in the later years of his life.
Tony Leung’s innate dignity and sang-froid perfectly suit
the character of Ip Man, whose fortunes are tied to territorial rivalry and
outright warfare in this saga that begins in the 1930s and ends in 1950s Hong
Kong. His costars, including Ziyi Zhang, Chang Chen, Wang Qingxiang, and Zhang
Jin, are also quite good. But a certain ponderousness weighs down The Grandmaster and keeps it from
becoming emotionally satisfying, at least for a Westerner with no knowledge of
Chinese politics. I’m afraid I came away disappointed.