Portrait of the master as a young man
The Grandmaster is a poetic, albeit choppy, hagiography of Ip Man
Directed by Wong Kar-wai
Starring Ziyi Zhang, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Chen Chang
Ip Man, the legendary martial arts master that popularized the wing chun style of kung fu and mentored Bruce Lee as a child, has been the subject of several biopics before. The two directed by Herman Yau, Ip Man: The Legend is Born (2010), didn’t make much noise on this side of the world; its continuation, Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013), will be released next month. The two directed by Wilson Yip, with a serene and solid Donnie Yen in the main role, Ip Man (2010) and Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster (2011), were warmly received by the public and critics alike. With these still warm from the oven, we are presented with yet another take on the life of the master. Written, directed and produced by Wong Kar Wai, The Grandmaster (2013) is an artistic retelling of the already familiar story, with familiar faces in the main roles: Tony Leung (Hero; Lust, Caution; Red Cliff) plays Ip Man, and Ziyi Zhang, (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; House of Flying Daggers; Hero) plays Gong Er, his fierce antagonist and platonic love interest.
The Grandmaster is a retelling of Ip Man’s life, from his affluent origins in Foshan, China through the many trials of war, poverty and revolution, up to his relocation to Hong Kong and the launch of his teaching career. Not much is new in terms of story. The difference comes in terms of style: Although they share the same subject matter, The Grandmaster is very different from previous Ip Man movies. The emphasis is not on the martial, but on the arts part of the equation. There is an abundance, one would even say an excess, of shots in slow motion: of flowers tilting in the wind generated by a movement of the hands, of snow being shifted by a spinning fighter, of drops of water falling from the hat or coat of the master as he fights, or drops of water being splashed away from his feet as he moves over puddles. Despite their abundance, these slow-mo close-ups of inanimate objects catching life under the spell of kung fu don’t get old or tiresome, much to my surprise.
The choreography, by Yuen Woo-Ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Matrix) is truly exquisite, as is the photography and the production design. All these elements are in the best tradition of top-notch movies like Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The movie’s weakness is in its cubist-like storytelling. The narrative of the movie flows like a sluggish and dislocated dream, with jumps and reveries that feel puzzling at best and boring at worst. Some ornamentation, like that used in Frida, can clearly help tell the story of an artist’s life. But in this case Wong may have overdone it, leaving as a result many gaps in the life story he was telling.
Despite the choppy narrative and some rough transitions, The Grandmaster is satisfying as an art installation: music, sound and movement express the essence of Ip Man’s life — as interpreted by Wong — in a way plain narrative may not have been able to communicate it. I would say, if you are a fan of martial arts as an art form, and don’t mind sitting through a few boring scenes, go see this film. The Grandmaster’s aesthetic excesses more than compensates for its weaknesses in coherence. Go and enjoy the art, the subtle undulation of the fighting hands, the trembling snow flakes falling on the fur coat, the sound of hands cutting their path through the cool air of a rainy night. It could be argued that such a delicate vision of mundane details is part of describing real life, and in this case it may be filling a void of style by previous tellings of Ip Man’s life as an artist.