The Grandmaster (2013)

The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai is a beautiful film visually. Breathtaking actually. But it is more about the cinematic arts than the telling of a story. It is also more about style than substance. And I believe that the title is a tad misleading.

I knew going in that Tony Leung was cast as Ip Man, a legendary Chinese martial arts instructor. Even the poster said, “Inspired by the True Story of Bruce Lee’s Master.”

Yes, Ip Man would train Bruce Lee in real life, but Ip Man is not the Grandmaster. The real Grandmaster was the father of Gong Er, the character played by Zhang Ziyi.

An old and famous teacher of Martial arts – Gong Yutian wants to extend his legacy to South China and Hong Kong and asks for candidates. Among which is Tony Leung as Ip Man.

At the Gong home, Ip Man and Gong Er have a fight to establish something – I’m not exactly clear, but the rules were that if any part of the house was broken or damaged, the winner would be the opponent who did not break something.

So Leung and Ziyi Zhang swirl, and leap, and throw their punches, kicks, and elbows in a match that seems less squared off than more of a tidal flow. However, upon a heavy landing, Ip Man caused a separation in the floor boards, in effect breaking the floor. As such, Gong Er was the winner. But the two remained friends.

Of course there was another reason for that. Gong Er had to avenge her father who was killed by Ma San. She did so despite being told that her father’s last words were that revenge not be taken or exacted.

But she felt compelled to protect the honor of the family, so she waited for the right time and eventually fought and killed Ma San in a railroad station. Her penance for not following her father’s last wish – she would never teach martial arts, and never marry. Her story is actually almost half of the film.

The other half is Ip Man’s story. He loses everything in the war when Japan invaded China. He suffers the losses of two of his daughters as war casualties, and he and his wife had to separate so he could flee to Hong Kong.

Ip Man's wife played by Korean actress He- kyo Song

Ip Man’s wife played by Korean actress Hye- kyo Song

So the story is split and is not presented as a pure linear narrative. Characters come and go, the dates change and we are awkwardly informed by text cards which appear on the screen of the date and time,  sometimes even after the events have already occurred.

But the fighting, the editing of those fights, the choreography of those fights is simply amazing. Balletic movements, incredible speed and agility, and even the bone-crunching audio will simply blow you away.

Leung’s Ip Man is indomitable. He is able to defeat dozens of opponents, either one at a time, or all at once. As I watched I was amazed at how seamless it seemed – whether we were watching in real-time or slow motion.

Just as good, was Zhang Ziyi. You will recall her action sequences in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – which I thought was a far better movie. Yet years after that memorable film, she still has it.

Basically I am saying that this film is difficult because it has been cut down in time for Western audiences from about four hours to two, and this creates an unevenness to the dramatic flow and makes the story seem somewhat haphazard.

But I don’t think you can complain about the martial arts from any standpoint. Leung has charisma and cool, but he hasn’t much opportunity as a fully realized character. His wife and children are given short shrift, and he seems mainly on-screen to fight and look way cool in doing so.

While it is true that I cannot recite anything about the technical side of Wing-chun, which was the Ip Man style of fighting, nor the style on display from the Gongs, I enjoyed what I saw of the action.

This film is far and away from any kind of honors for acting, or screenwriting, but might attract some attention for editing and sound. I won’t trash the film. But I will say that it might have been a lot better, Three point five is as high as I will go. Check the trailer below:

4 thoughts on “The Grandmaster (2013)

  1. This one looks so beautifully-shot! I’m gonna try to wait until I can see the complete version instead of the abridged one for US audiences. Heh, the Weinsteins are trying to do the same w/ Snowpiercer 😦

    • Thanks Ruth. By the way – I don’t think the music in the trailer above is in the film. As far as the extended version – I bought this DVD on eBay and it was from Hong Kong, and it was still the shorter version. Actual run time was 2:35. Thanks for stopping by.

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