Amazing cinematography overpowers the script in this martial arts story
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