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Grandmaster, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Yes, another Ip Man film - but it's also a Wong Kar-wai picture!"
4 stars

"INTERNATIONAL" CUT SCREENED: Wong Kar-wai is a notoriously slow worker in a movie industry that can turn things over with ruthless efficiency, and as evidence I present the four movies about martial-arts master Ip Man (by two different directors and starring three different actors) produced between his announcing this film as his next project and the thing hitting screens. And while it's a little difficult for those who have eaten those up to avoid the feeling of having been there and done that as a result, a new WKW movie is an event in and of itself, and this one doesn't disappoint.

It starts in 1930s Foshan, where highly-skilled wing chun practitioner Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is chosen as the southern representative to spar with visiting northern grandmaster Gong Yuitan (Wang Qing-xiang) to begin work on the unification of the two regions' fighting styles in advance of the inevitable Japanese invasion. Gong is retiring, and while he has chosen a successor in Ma San (Zhang Jin), he has only taught the 64 Hands style to his daughter Ruomei (Zhang Ziyi), familiarly called "Gong Er". A connection forms between Ip Man and Gong Er, but the Sino-Japanese war will prevent them from meeting again until 1950, when both are refugees in Hong Kong, and soon cut off from their homes in what is now the People's Republic.

At least in the American cut screened, The Grandmaster starts with action, a big fight scene choreographed by Yuen Wo-ping, which quickly establishes Ip Man's prowess against a crowd and offers a nice preview of what's to come. Like many of the fights in the movie, this isn't so much a battle of good versus evil, or even people with opposing interests, but of masters testing themselves against each other. Great pride will often be on the line, but Yuen and Wong have a chance to show off a little here and stage things to look cool, or explain the differences of various styles and their origins before demonstrating them. There's a particularly impressive sequence relatively early on where various older masters demonstrate the individual techniques that Gong Yutian has mastered to Ip Man, which makes the ensuing sequence when they are all in play all the more exciting. You don't have to be the sort of martial-arts fan that dives into this sort of minutia to enjoy the fights - the filmmakers offer up slick packages with a little wire work, a lot of style, and plenty of hard, quick hits that the casual action movie fan will thoroughly enjoy - but the attention to detail is impressive.

Will the casual action fan get quite the same pleasure from the parts of the parts of the film that focus on longing and loss? Maybe not, but this is a Wong Kar-wai picture, and that's as inevitable a part of the picture as the 1950s Hong Kong setting may seem. It's an interestingly different take on the emotion, though, as what passes between Ip Man and Gong Er is not necessarily romance - certainly, not the sort that poses any threat to Ip's marriage - as much as a connection between kindred spirits. The Grandmaster trades in the same emotion that Wong has built a career on, though the longing and nostalgia are often expressed in terms of action, whether it be Ip Man wishing he could travel to the north to spar with Gong Er rather than have a tryst, or the mysterious assassin-cum-barber (Chang Chen) who longs to hear the sounds of blades clashing again.

Though Ip Man is the primary focus of the film ( it occasionally shifts narrators), Gong Er arguably has the better story; while it initially looks like just another "woman in a man's world" tale, it becomes beautifully operatic in how she responds to this injustice (among others), with the biggest stumble being in how it ends. To a certain extent,the film as a whole stumbles at the conclusion, although it's not clear whether that's because this "simplified" cut tries to fit footage intended to be used in a different style of movie into a different pattern or because Ip Man's life doesn't quite fit the narrative.

It's reflected a bit in the performances, too. Tony Leung Chiu-wai is fine as Ip, playing the character with a little more ambition and eagerness than other iterations (especially Anthony Wong's recent portrayal in Ip Man: The Final Fight), and he expresses longing and sadness well enough. Zhang Ziyi, meanwhile, gets to do a lot more with her meatier role, especially during her initial meeting with Ip Man and her war flashback. It's great to watch her move between the dutiful daughter and someone with strong, aggressive emotions and opinions of her own; she and Yeun Wo-ping bring this out fantastically during her fight scenes. The roll call of kung fu masters is great, too: Certainly, Wang Qing-xiang and "John" Zhang Jin give fine performances as Gong Er's proud father and his prize pupil, but there's at least a good half-dozen actors who give their characters memorable personalities in the moments before they give us memorable fights.

The picture is as beautiful as one might expect. Wong and his team know how to tie mood to time and place, with the start of the film featuring an up-and-coming Ip Man wearing a snazzy western hat and the whole thing shot in either with a slick black-and-white palette or bright colors, while wartime takes on a grainy documentary style and the Hong Kong scenes look somewhat faded, with the previously up-to-date Ip starting to look like an anachronism. It's done relatively quietly, but the way every detail of the movie follows Ip Man's fortunes certainly makes it feel that much better even when it's not quite up to Wong's standards.

Of course, the original Chinese cut may in fact be just that good, and I'm anxious to see it. In fact, I considered skipping seeing this version entirely just out of general annoyance at how The Weinstein Company treats its Asian acquisitions, which can border on contempt. The thing is, Wong Kar-wai makes beautiful movies that deserve the big-screen treatment, and "The Grandmaster" is both striking enough and good enough to deserve to be seen that way, even if does tacitly support cutting movies that likely don't need it.

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originally posted: 09/07/13 09:25:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/07/13 Pearl Bogdan This was a lot better then the thing I had heard about it 4 stars
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  23-Aug-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 04-Mar-2014



Directed by
  Kar Wai Wong

Written by
  Kar Wai Wong
  Haofeng Xu
  Jingzhi Zou

  Ziyi Zhang
  Tony Leung Chiu Wai
  Cung Le
  Hye-kyo Song
  Chen Chang
  Woo-ping Yuen

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