Release Date: August 23, 2013 (Limited)
Director: Wong Kar Wai
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Film Pulse Score: 7/10
Martial arts legend Bruce Lee wasn’t born a master of Wing Chun. Every master must start as a pupil and Bruce Lee’s former teacher was a legend not just in his homeland China but in martial arts history as well. Lee’s teacher was Yip Man, also known as Ip Man, and he is the subject of Wong Kar Wai’s latest film The Grandmaster.
The Grandmaster is not a traditional bio-pic per se. It is clearly inspired by the man’s life and numerous liberties are taken throughout. Unlike Rob Cohen’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story the fight scenes are not grounded in reality and fully embrace the archetypes of the genre such as wire-fu and the wind that emanates from a punch. However if one is expecting The Grandmaster to be a fight film they will be gravely disappointed. There are fights in the film and many are pulled off lyrically, cinematically and they have Wong Kar Wai’s signature all over them. They are not hard-nosed, flying fists and kicks but are often comprised of slow-mo shots, close ups and often feels like a ballet of sorts. This is not being negative in any way just laying out how the fights appear. In actuality the true focus of the film is not the fights but about Ip Man, his life and his relationship with Gong Er, the daughter of Gong Yutian.
When we first meet Ip Man he is engaged in a fight during a torrential downpour. This is witnessed by Gong Yutian, a master from the North who is looking to bring up a master from the South. Recognizing Ip Man’s talents he requests his appearance and Ip must face a series of challenges. In the process, he meets Yutian’s daughter Gong Er who intrigues him. Not just by her beauty but her abilities, intelligence and not to mention she bested him in a fight. The film not only follows Ip Man’s life but Gong Er’s as well as she struggles to bring honor back to her father’s house.
The film features Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang as Ip Man and Gong Er, respectively. Ip Man is not portrayed like a man of action but as a philosopher, teacher and student. The little nuances of how Ip Man would study and analyze an opponents actions in a simple glance or how he would never underestimate his opponents regardless of age or gender speak volumes to the character of Ip Man. Tony Leung is very good as the Grandmaster. He does well to portray the physicality and philosophy of the man and his art. Ziyi Zhang is excellent as Gong Er. This is probably her best role since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Zhang effectively portrays the accomplished martial artist who cannot take on the mantle of her father because she is a woman. She is particularly good when she must fight for her family honor.
The work of Wong Kar Wai and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd is beautiful to look at. From the barren, snow-capped mountains to the cramped hallways of the brothel every scene is poetically composed and shot. It is very reminiscent of the work that Ang Lee and Peter Pau did for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The lush photography truly emphasizes the romanticism of it all even during the fight scenes. Speaking of the fights they aren’t staged like a traditional combat scene but more as a ballet/chess match and it is often shot close up and in slow motion.
The Grandmaster isn’t the biography of Yip Man. A more authentic bio-pic has yet to be made about the man but Wong Kar Wai’s film serve as a nice alternative to the more traditional action-oriented bio-pics about Ip Man that have been released as of late. It may be a bit dull for the action crowd but for fans or Crouching Tiger or even Wong Kar Wai’s work may find it quite enjoyable.