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.
Kicking off in the early 1930s and spanning two decades of events, "The Grandmaster" is not invested in the visceral rush of clashing opponents or elaborate training sessions. Instead, Wong emphasizes sacred traditions pitted against the march of time. When the Japanese occupation brings a faster end to Gong's career than anyone around him expected, his daughter launches on a warpath against defected Gong disciple Ma Shan (Zhang Jin), while Ip Man's own ambitions are buried in a hail of wartime tragedies. The excitement of combat expectations gives way to a melancholic second act.
Even as the plot of "The Grandmaster" gets droopy, it never loses the polished look. Working with a new director of photography (French cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd), Wong's attentiveness to color palettes and shifting frame rates are more erratic than those found in his collaborations with Christopher Doyle, but they're always gorgeous displays often caked in yellows or browns that solidify the ancient quality of the proceedings.
Repeatedly capturing Wing Chung disciples gathered together before freezing them into a still image, Wong provides constant reminders of the history at work. The effect is alternately involving and remote as the story zigzags along. The intense chatter about family honor tends to have a listless quality, but Wong's implementation of fight choreography stands apart from any easy comparison. A steady stream of close-ups with rapid cuts of bodies invariably slowed down and sped up, the combat in "The Grandmaster" maintains a heavily aesthetisized feel without defying physics a la "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Everything impressive about is grounded in actual technique.
Wong can never match that inspired aspect of his direction with an equally commanding story, although there's some emotional potency to the plight of Gong as she does her father's legacy proud, reaching a greater heroic dimension than Ip Man himself. But the filmmaker does nothing to counteracts a dryness to the process of getting to that point, and his pensiveness only truly gels for the way it draws attention to the movie's defiance of clichés. The stage is set early on for a showdown that's interrupted by the harsher chaos of greater historical events, proving that the destructive forces of war pack a much bigger wallop than any combination of punching and kicks.
Unsurprisingly, Wong gets this idea across through a delicately constructed tone rendered with an effortless quality on par with the skilled fighters at the movie's center. "Don't worry about your style," Ip Man says, a statement that applies to Wong as well. Even with this shift of content, the form remains a visual marvel.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already a major blockbuster in China, "The Grandmaster" opens the Berlin International Film Festival without a North American distributor. It has limited appeal in the United States but should find a home with a midsize distributor experienced with martial arts and arthouse releases able to help the movie find its niche market. It won't replicate its success back home, but "The Grandmaster" is certain to reach audiences already eager to see it.