I suppose being Bruce Lee's former teacher and someone who had made the martial art Wing Chun known around the world, the curiosity around his life became so strong that directors Wilson Yip and Herman Yau had their turn in bringing his life to the big screen. Wilson Yip's "Ip Man" was a film with a lot of fiction around it, which focused entirely on action sequences with Donnie Yen in the title role. Herman Yau's "The Legend is Born: Ip Man" was something similar but different, as it was an unspectacular martial arts drama but a little more subtle and certainly not as bombastic as Wilson Yip's films.
Well, finally the highly anticipated biopic about Ip Man directed by Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love)has finally arrived. A little different from his usual films, as the film goes for refreshing ideas and themes rather than decadent emotions, it is a film that has a lot of hype as with any other film directed by him. People should be aware that one needs to temper their expectations with Wong Kar-Wai's "The Grandmaster". It is a film about a true-to-life figure and is a period piece that brings the concept of how martial arts can apply to living. Wong Kar-Wai takes on a premise that he has not done before that his fans would have reason to celebrate. This review is based on the 130 minute film released in Asia, I have heard that another cut of the film was debuted internationally. The film has been set to have a nationwide screening in U.S. movie theaters August 30, 2013.
1930s China. Ip Man (Tony Leung, Red Cliff) is a rich, young martial arts master who does not want to compete and yet he finds himself thrust into the limelight as his peers push him into a sparring match with Chinese Martial Arts chairman Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang). The match was more technical than a display of skills as Ip Man asserts his inner skill to get the best of Yutian. As a result, Yutian's daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Banquet) who is also a master in her own right of the 64 hands, issues a challenge to Master Ip as to restore her family's reputation. The two spar in a flow of rhythmic movements that almost looked like poetry. This is only the first few minutes of the film, as Wong Kar-Wai co-wrote the screenplay to include certain periods in Ip Man's life. If life has four seasons, then the first 20 years is spring, but then his life takes a turn to winter during the Sino-Japanese war.
Wong Kar-Wai intentionally made the film to feel rather convoluted and episodic. Perhaps in an effort to express his themes and metaphors, and to cover as much of Ip Man's life as best he could. Wong does not primarily takes his focus on Master Ip's life, but rather he brings into the fold the way each period was in his life and how certain people have influenced his life both directly and indirectly. The writing in the film was definitely trying to bring forth the concept as to how the teachings of martial arts could be applied to the living of one's life, as Tony Leung clearly elaborates in the first few minutes in the film; "It is all about the horizontal and the vertical". I take it that one is left standing while the other is laying down in martial arts. Such is something that could certainly be seen in life. One stands while the other lays down, perhaps one needs to learn how to lay down in order to stand, and also at a mirror image, one needs to learn to lay down in order to stand.
Wong Kar-Wai has some rather heavy themes going around here. There is much to take in the film, the dialogue is often filled with philosophical meanings and metaphors, but we all know that it is usually what a Wong Kar-Wai movie is all about. The characters in the film move about its themes, and while its structure felt a little loose, the resonance for each of them is pretty crystal clear. Ma San (Zhang Jin) and Gong Er make choices that often feel that they were based on emotions such as pride, anger, honor and love. The theme of vengeance that comes with the two, was something that keeps them from fully reaching the peak of kung fu. This brings into its narrative as to there are three levels that signify the highest achievement in martial arts: "being, knowing and doing." This lesson comes from Master Gong to Ma San, and strongly expressed through Gong Er's life that she had taken a vow that kept her from becoming a wife and having children in order to avenge her father. Ma San and Gong Er chooses from a very straight-forward emotional level that chooses their destiny for them.
Now, Master Ip also has potential for all these emotions, but he is stoic about them and maybe more passive. His approach to life is a more peaceful one, as his love for Gong Er remained inside and that such a thing could not be in the past. Master Ip is married to Wing Sing (Song Hye-Kyo in a limited screen time) while Gong Er was engaged. Ip Man choose to rise above such desires and ambition, that he approaches life from a less than exalting path. There is a subtle subversive message around its narrative, and yet it sees things from a humanist point of view. Life has its regrets, and yet, here, it is not something that drives its narrative but merely a consequence. Wong places the film's priorities on the world around the individual rather than what the individual does to the world.
As with Wong Kar-wai's usual style, the film is very lush and a little pretentious. This is not a negative comment, but rather something that I have just grown to be fond of when it came to Wong's films. Wong uses slow-motion with overblown art direction and redolent details to bring the power, the beauty and the flair of the martial arts. All angles were utilized to display the moves and even some close ups to bring forth its effects and intensity. It is a true visual feast but I could've done without the `fighting in the rain' since it had been done so much in other films. The cinematography and the atmosphere of the film fit just should be expected of Wong Kar-Wai; this is after all a style all his own and what made him the renowned filmmaker that he is today.
The screenplay in "The Grandmaster" is pretty strong, and yet it does not come with some issues. I mean, I know this is meant as a biopic, but one is left to wonder if this is Ip Man as seen through his eyes, or is it Master Ip as seen through Wong's viewpoint? I know the film's intentions was a less than fictional one, but really, it feels a little unfocused at times. The script takes some detours that I thought unnecessary, I was a little dumbfounded how a nationalist agent turned ass-kicking barber called "the Razor" could've made a good device to further Ip Man's transitions and yet he was only in three scenes. Chang Chen's the Razor was shamelessly used and felt like a `filler' since the film could've gotten along fine without him. I also thought that the narrative played a little too heavy on Zhang Ziyi's character rather than its supposed main protagonist.
"The Grandmaster" could've easily been called "The Grandmasters" as in the plural form. It feels little unfocused to be a biopic on Master Ip, and truth be told, its messages could've easily been delivered in a film by any other director about a martial artist's journey experiencing the same things in the world. Tony Leung does a great job as the lead, as he felt a little smug and yet, tempered. Stoic, yet filled with emotions. His performance was certainly better than Donnie Yen's. It was also great to see Zhang Ziyi's to once again do her thing; she was elegant, beautiful and graceful as always. Despite some flaws, "The Grandmaster" is a good film that deals with devotion, humility, humanist ideas, and rather than using love as a driving force, it is a mere upshot. It is about just what it means to stand upright, that how one who chooses the right path is often the one left standing. This message is truly complete and grown-up that this film gets a High Recommendation from me. [4 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
When I first heard that Wong Kar-Wai was going to do a film about Bruce Lee's teacher, I immediately thought that his movie would be like "Wyatt Earp" to "Tombstone"... that his The Grandmaster would be like "Wyatt Earp" to Wilson Yip's "Ip Man". Wong takes his film into an artsy approach that had become his signature. Having magnificent cinematography and rhythmic action sequences, "The Grandmaster" is a success … more