Is it possible to recommend a movie that one doesn’t particularly enjoy or care for? This is question that many will be faced with after seeing “The Grandmaster”. It’s the furthest thing from a terrible film, but it also seems to be targeted at the very kind of audience with little to no interest in martial arts cinema. That isn’t to say that the film’s action is less than superb (how could it be when it’s the work of the one and only Yuen Woo-ping?), but the film as a whole is far from the more typical biopic stuffed with plenty of martial arts action that the Donnie Yen “Ip Man” films are known for being.
“The Grandmaster” is more of an art house; indeed, of all the Ip Man movies released in the last half decade, it is by far the most artsy, and high-brow, and one has to enter the film with that knowledge in order to feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth. There’s also the rather infamous edits made by the Weinstein Company that excised some 22 minutes from the film, in addition to shifting the chronology of numerous scenes, in preparation for the film’s premiere at ComicCon and subsequent theatrical release in the U.S. One’s enjoyment of “The Grandmaster” may depend as much on which version they watch as it does their appetite for art house cinema.
The now iconic role of Bruce Lee’s famed mentor is played by veteran Hong Kong actor Tony Leung. As a result of the deluge of films about his life that have been made in recent years, the highly revered master of Wing Chun has arguably achieved the same place in Hong Kong cinema that was occupied by Wong Fei-hung when the “Once Upon A Time In China” series was at its peak, and Leung is well-suited embody the erudite gentleman of martial arts that comes to mind when one thinks of Ip Man.
Zhang Ziyi steps into the role of Gong-er, who seeks to reclaim the perceived loss of honour that comes from her father’s defeat at Ip Man’s hands. Gong-er’s father, Gong Yutian, is portrayed by Wang Qingxiang, and embodies the same peaceful co-existence of martial arts in China that Ip Man does. The formidable son of Gong-er, Ma San, is brought to life by Jin Zhang, and he is arguably the most impressive fighter in the whole film; hopefully, we’ll see him in action much more in the future.
Foshan’s renowned master of Wing Chun known as Ip Man, is summoned by his fellow kung fu masters of the south for a matter of great importance. The representative of northern martial arts, Gong Yutian, has arrived in Foshan to announce his retirement and appoints his son Ma San to carry on his duties. However, Gong believes that the southern masters should likewise have a single, centralized representative who will face Gong in a challenge match. Various masters issue challenges to Gong, only to be turned away by Ma San. Eventually, the southern masters vote to have Ip Man represent their region in the challenge against Gong.
Ip Man trains with masters of styles varying from Xingyi to Bagua to Hung Gar in preparation for the fight, while Gong’s daughter Gong-er attempts to convince her father to rescind the challenge due to what she perceives as the southern masters unworthiness to face her father, but she is unable to persuade him and the challenge goes on. However, rather than a more typical fight, Ip and Gong’s match consists of the two exchanging their varying perspectives on northern and southern martial arts, and how this divide reflects the similar regional divide of the Chinese people. Gong concedes defeat to Ip and returns to the north, leaving Gong-er incensed as she perceives her father’s willingness to tarnish their family’s martial arts by admitting defeat to Ip Man.
Gong-er subsequently challenges Ip Man to a duel in the local brothel, with Ip Man willingly conceding defeat after breaking a step in the staircase, thus violating the principle of “precision” he claims is inherent in kung fu. The two part on amicable terms, with Ip Man hoping for a rematch in the future. Unfortunately, that hoped is dashed by the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938. Two of Ip Man’s daughters die of starvation, while Ma San sides with the Japanese before killing his father. Gong-er subsequently dedicates her life to vengeance, vowing never to marry, have children, or teach martial arts for the rest of her life. Gong-er later confronts her brother at a train station, defeating him but sustains lasting injuries herself.
Ip Man, meanwhile, has begun to rebuild his life after moving to Hong Kong, earning a reputation as a formidable martial artist and great teacher after defeating numerous local masters. It is here where he meets Gong-er again on New Year’s Eve 1950 and encourages her to resume teaching, but Gong-er refuses, along with declining his polite request of a rematch. Two years later, the two meet again, and Gong-er confesses that she has long held romantic feelings for Ip Man. This is the last time the two ever see each other, as Gong-er later succumbs to an opium addiction she developed to combat the pain of her injuries from her fight with Ma San. Ip Man continues to teach, becoming a highly respected teacher throughout Hong Kong and popularizing the art of Wing Chun worldwide via his most famous student, Bruce Lee.
For most martial arts fans, the name Yuen Woo-ping needs no introduction. He is the man behind some of the most enduring and breathtaking martial arts choreography in both Hong Kong and Hollywood, with everything from “Fist of Legend” and “Fearless” to “The Matrix” and “The Forbidden Kingdom” bearing his signature. With “The Grandmaster”, he shows not the slightest evidence of having lost his touch. As with the Donnie Yen “Ip Man” films, he crafts a veritable ballet of combat, incorporating a wide range of styles for Ip Man’s many opponents, both to diversify the action as well as to show the contrast of various forms of Chinese martial arts.
By far, the most memorable battle in the film is the first – a brawl in the streets of Foshan in the pouring rain between Ip Man and a pack of thugs before battling a particularly aggressive goon played by MMA sensation Cung Le, entering the battle after leaping from a second story window. Scenes like this are testimony to Yuen’s mastery of action as a cinematic language. No context whatsoever is given for the fight – why is it taking place? Are Ip Man’s opponent’s trying to rob him? Who is that guy who just jumped out of the window onto the pavement? – and yet the viewer cannot help but be sucked into the fight and immediately siding with Ip Man. The fight masterfully contrasts the trapping and chain-punching that is the trademark of Wing Chun with Cung Le’s more kick-oriented approach, and the use of rain impeccably emphasizes the intensity of both combatants’ movements for the viewer.
The rest of the combat is equally up to par with Yuen Woo-ping’s normal standards. However, this is where the more artsy approach of director Wong Kar-wai begins to show itself. Far from being the more straightforward depiction of martial arts as seen in the other “Ip Man” films, the duel’s often alternate from wide shots of combatants trading blows to a close-up of a fist or foot displacing rain or snow, making contact with an opponent or wall, along with very copious use of slow motion.
The style of action on display in “The Grandmaster” is almost reminiscent of the Peter Parker’s spider-sense in the first “Spider-Man” film. Time slows down and every minute detail of the world inhabited by the fighters is brought into clear, sharp focus as they do battle. It’s obvious that Wong’s style of filming and editing martial arts is a far cry from the more gritty, brutal approach of “Ong Bak” or the previous “Ip Man” films, and will likely have the paradoxical effect of either diluting or intensifying the action, depending on what kind of audience you happen to be.
Two things can be said of “The Grandmaster” after an initial viewing. The first is that it is a superbly well-made and breathtakingly beautiful film. The second is that it is most definitely not for everyone. It is a martial arts drama with very heavy emphasis on the drama, and it is an art house film made for people who couldn’t care less who taught Bruce Lee. It is also testimony to Yuen Woo-ping’s undying command of fight choreography, and the end result is a film that is impossible to hate but which is also made for a very specific kind of viewer. And ultimately, it is a film that one will either love or be able to recommend without holding the same kind of affection as one would for the other “Ip Man” films.
- Wong Kar-wai spent years preparing a biopic on Bruce Lee‘s teacher, and this at times came to the detriment of other “Ip Man” films. For example, Donnie Yen’s “Ip Man” was originally to be titled “Grandmaster Ip Man”, but the title was changed due to Wong’s complaints over it’s similarity to the title of his film.
- Even after “The Grandmaster” was finished filming, Wong spent over a year editing the film before feeling satisfied to release it.
- Like Donnie Yen before him, Tony Leung spent months training extensively in wing chun in preparation for the role of Ip Man.