Making the Grades
Whether or not you like the martial arts genre, The Grandmaster is a visually stunning epic. Every scene directed by Chinese born Wong Kar-wai appears to have merited the attention and precision of an artist setting up a painting.
In an opening scene, a group of attackers take on a lone man in the middle of a rain-filled street. Water droplets hang momentarily on the white, wide-brimmed hat of the defendant before he strikes out at his opponents. The ensuing shots change rapidly between a series of camera angles. Splashing water fills the screen as the men struggle. It’s so cinematically beautiful that one forgets this is really a gang of thugs in a street fight.
The man at the center of all the attention is Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a grandmaster of the kung fu discipline of Wing Chun. He is being watched by Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), a master from northern China. Ready to retire, the aging man has chosen Ma San (Zhang Jin) as his replacement in the North. But he believes the South deserves an heir for his dynasty as well. Ip Man may be the heir apparent if he can beat the elderly doyen.
Ip Man’s reign is short-lived however when Japanese troops invade the country. Forced to eke out whatever sustenance he can in the war torn city of Foshan, Ip Man watches his wife (Song Hye-kyo) and children face starvation. He also learns Gong Yutian has been killed and his daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) a young woman with whom Ip Man has been exchanging letters, has vowed to avenge his death.
In an effort to find work, Ip Man leaves his wife and moves to Hong Kong in hopes of teaching martial arts. But the city is overrun with masters seeking students. In order to procure a following, Ip Man must once again prove his physical prowess and fighting skills.
While Ip Man’s story is the gist of the film, this cinematic wonder tends to wander. Leaving the main character momentarily on the sidelines, it pursues the narrative of other secondary characters before finally ambling back to Ip Man—all the time giving preference to the visual elements rather than action.
As well, the English subtitles may discourage some viewers. Yet despite the frequent and sometimes graphic depictions of martial arts violence, the film contains very little blood or gore. Rampant smoking and some drug use in this historical drama, along with brief, strong language, may also be an issue for some audience members.
The real Ip Man, who trained Bruce Lee, one of the most famous Chinese American martial artists and action film actors in history, has been the subject of numerous films over the past few years including Ip Man, Ip Man 2, The Legend is Born—Ip Man and Ip Man: The Final Fight. However The Grandmaster is likely by far the most artsy of the projects. Unfortunately, while this biographical drama features discipline, honor and respect for cultural values, those worthwhile messages too often take a backseat to the scenery.
Release Date: 23 August 2013 (Limited) Note: Original title: Yi dai zong shi
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Grandmaster.
How does the director’s use of cinematography contribute to the telling of the story? How are camera angles, lighting and a focus on elements like water and snow all used to emphasize the martial arts skills of the performers?
Gong Er feels a need to restore her family honor and she does so by fighting. Is there a need to restore honor? What is the cost to her personally?
While the film implies a romantic interest shared by Ip Man and Gong Er there is no indication they ever acted on their feelings other than to exchange letters? How did the war intrude on their relationship? Might things have been different if Ip Man had made the journey to the North? Does Ip Man’s wife feel betrayed, even though there appears to be no physical intimacy between Ip Man and Gong Er? Is emotional fidelity as real as physical fidelity?
Why is Gong Yatian so determined to have his family dynasty continued? Why is he disappointed that he only has a daughter? How were women viewed in that era of Chinese history?