In the years leading up to its completion, the prospects of a kung fu movie directed by Chinese art house auteur Wong Kar Wai have fascinated those familiar with his distinct blend of lush images and poetic encounters simply because "The Grandmaster" sounded so unlike him. However, the finished product remains satisfyingly in tune with the contemplative nature of the director's other work, only breaking his trance-like approach to drama for the occasional showcasing of martial arts techniques.
It's easy to see why audiences may expect something different. "The Grandmaster" purports to tell the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung) who eventually trained Bruce Lee. A humble Southern Chinese resident specializing in the kung fu subset known as Wing Chun, Ip Man carries the mantle for a retiring expert of the form, but "The Grandmaster" focuses less on Ip Man's abilities than the cultural weight they command. Intermittently action-packed and lethargic, the movie dances around formula. By delivering an expressionistic character study with bursts of intensity unlike anything else in his oeuvre and yet stylistically representative of its entirety, Wong practically has it both ways.
The director has operated outside his safety zone before, most notably with the American road trip drama "My Blueberry Nights," where certain Western motifs never quite synched with Wong's overall vision. By contrast, "The Grandmaster" represents something of a rebound. Operating on a far bigger scale with heavier themes, Wong's ninth feature features a superior cohesion of artistry and ideas.
Kicking off with a lavish introductory battle between Ip Man and several foe against a dark, rainy backdrop, "The Grandmaster" uses its opening sequence to establish the poetry of motion that defines the Wing Chun technique. But action leads directly into a contemplative mood; the year is 1936, a time of political upheaval in which the invasion of Japanese forces to the north endanger the country's current stability. Longtime Wing Chun master Gong Baosen (Wan Qingxiang) witnesses Ip Man's fight and instantly recognizes a potential heir just as he contemplates retirement. Visiting Southern China's Gold Pavilion in the city of Foshan for a commemoration of his accomplishments, Gong kicks off a tournament to formally determine his replacement.
The scene is technically set for a barrage of hand-to-hand combat, but instead Wong spends more time fleshing out the atmosphere. Ip Man's intermittent voiceover explains the discipline involved in Wing Chun along with the elaborate community surrounding it -- a tense group of male and female fighters who regularly gather in a posh brothel to discuss their skills. It's here that Ip Man encounters Gong's equally talented daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the only Wing Chun practitioner fully schooled in her dad's revered "64-hand" method. While the bonds between these surefooted fighters grow, so does the bigger tension of the pre-war backdrop, which eventually overwhelms everything else. That's when "The Grandmaster" gets really interesting. Rather than simply focus on the search for the new Wing Chung champion, it uses that rather small narrative to frame a broader historical one.