Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” is a movie I respect more than I actually like. In this summer of one generic, CGI heavy action movie after another it’s refreshing to see something as graceful and beautiful as Kar-wai’s film, which captures the spirit and style of old fashioned, choreographed martial art movies. There’s no CGI and no buildings are destroyed. What a relief. The picture tells the real life story of legendary martial art master IP Man (Tony Leung), who’s perhaps most known for teaching fellow martial arts icon Bruce Lee. The movie begins in 1930’s Foshan China. The city is split into a northern and southern martial art clans and this first part of the movie follows IP Man’s confrontation with a northern grandmaster Gong Yutian (Qingxiang) and his romantic encounters with Yutian’s daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, as fierce as always). However, due to the Second Sino-Japanese war IP Man had to flee to Hong Kong, and so the movie picks up in 1950’s where IP Man teaches at a martial arts school.
Aside from this strong sense of Chinese history, the other major factor that informs “The Grandmaster” is a strong appreciation of martial arts. Watching the movie you can tell that Kar-wai has the utmost respect for them, not just for IP Man’s preferred style Wing Chung but for multiple forms and he gives each one its due time. As already stated “The Grandmaster” is a gorgeous film, mainly because it has some of the best looking action in any movie so far this year. Kar-wai uses quick cuts and slow motion (common characteristics of American action movies) but unlike a lot of American action films these days he doesn’t use them to disorient us or make us seasick. Instead, he uses the techniques to emphasize the brutal, fluid beauty of these martial art forms, as well as the intricacy that goes into them. Kar-wai stages them more like ballets than fight scenes. He achieves a gracefulness that’s hardly ever seen in American action movies. This again goes back to this immense appreciation of martial arts apparent in every frame of the picture.
However, probably the best thing about “The Grandmaster” is that even though it is a martial arts movie Kar-wai doesn’t overwhelm us with one fight scene after another. During the opening confrontation—in which we see IP Man face off against a large group of thugs during a heavy rainfall—I rolled my eyes and thought to myself: “Oh great, how many of these are we going to have?” Turns out that’s the only massive confrontation we see. Kar-wai uses the fight scenes sparingly, so we’re not completely exhausted by the end. Each confrontation has some kind of weight or significance behind it and that’s the most effective way to use action in any movie, American or not. And more often than not it’s the non-violent confrontations that leave a greater impression. For example, when IP Man goes to face Yutian we’re expecting a five or six minute fight but instead it turns out to be an exchange of philosophical ideas instead of fists. We don’t see it coming and so it turns out to be far more effective and special than just having the two men duke it out physically.
Now comes the hard part of this review. While I admired the movie’s craftsmanship it still suffers from one major flaw, which is that Kar-wai doesn’t fully develop IP Man’s character. I have nothing against Leung (who gives a stern and assured performance) but after watching the entire film I didn’t learn very much about IP Man, which is peculiar considering the movie spans two decades or so. Even with this massive time frame, Kar-wai fails to provide us with a comprehensive picture of IP Man’s life and none of the individual chapters of his life that are emphasized feel fully elaborated. On top of that, the narrative (what little there is) relies on far too much voice over narration and information cards. In the end the movie is more about Gong Er (the two encounter each other again in the 1950’s) and her quest to avenge her father’s death and restore honor to her family. That’s all well and good but it’s still told from IP Man’s point of view and so her character doesn’t feel fully established either. I realize that other IP Man movies have come before this one so maybe Kar-wai would have been better off focusing on one specific portion of his life, like when he starts mentoring Bruce Lee.
Wong Kar-wai cut three different versions of “The Grandmaster,” the original Chinese cut is two hours and twenty minutes, the second version (which appeared at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival) runs two hours and three minutes and finally this version (distributed by the Weinstein Company) is the shortest at an hour and forty eight minutes. I haven’t seen either the Chinese cut or the Berlin Film Festival cut but I think the American version could have benefited from being longer. As it is right now this version is beautifully crafted and I still have respect for what Kar-wai is trying to do, but at the same time it’s lacking in both character development and story telling.