Director Wong Kar-wai ‘s second foray into the world of martial arts after 1994’s Ashes of Time might be one of the most elegantly mounted martial arts movie yet.*
In telling the story of the great Ip Man — the martial artist who trained the legendary Bruce Lee — Wong has made a sprawling, beautiful epic that suffers only because it has been trimmed down for U.S. consumption.
PG-13 for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Best known for creating sensual, luciously stylized images in movies such as In the Mood For Love (2000), Wong has met martial-arts material more than half way.
Wong’s fight scenes are nicely assembled, pitting various martial arts schools against one another and also helping to anchor a review of Chinese history from the 1930s through the 1950s. The story includes the Japanese occupation of China, frictions between northern and southern China and lots of jockeying for position among various martial arts masters.
Those familiar with Wong’s work won’t be surprised to learn that Grandmaster also tells an ill-fated love story between two great martial artists, Tony Leung’s Ip Man and Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er, a woman who devotes her life to restoring the lineage built by her father (Wang Qingxiang), a master from northern China.
Wong allows Zhang — who’s playing a gifted female martial artist in a male-dominated milieu — to share the spotlight with Leung as the movie explores themes hinged on fate, skill and honor, often in sequences soaked in heavy rain.
I’m not certain how the staunchest of martial arts fans will react to Wong’s movie because the story is told in an operatic style that embraces melodrama and because Wong has aimed higher than the genre sometimes demands.
But Wong doesn’t slight the artistry of fighting. Author and boxing aficionado Norman Mailer used to call boxing matches a form of conversation. Wong seems to adopt a similar view, making clear that when skilled opponents face off, they’re engaging in an exchange between warring spirits.
To this end, he makes fine use of the work of gifted fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, who stages the fight scenes, a job he also performed for movies such as The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Drunken Master.
Because the movie has been altered for American audiences, Wong adds title cards that offer historical guidance to those of us who come up short on Chinese history and martial-arts lore. These title cards play roughly the same function they would in a silent movie.
Even Wong’s detractors will have to admit that the director’s collaboration with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s has resulted in some of the year’s most gorgeous imagery.
And true to the ethos of these movies, the martial arts warriors all exude skill, but only reach the highest levels of achievement when their craft is tempered by a sense of duty and honor.
History turns Ip Man into an exile. He moves to Hong Kong at a time when the great martial artists are less revered than they once were. His commitment to his art isn’t always recognized.
The version of The Grandmaster being released in the U.S. includes a few narrative lapses and a protracted ending, but no matter how you react to the story Wong tells, it’s difficult not to be swept away by his unashamed commitment to style and rhapsodic displays of visual artistry.
* Ashes of Time was recut and re-released as Ashes of Time Redux in 2008.