Directed by: Wong Kar Wai
Cast: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Jin Zhang
Running Time: 1 hr 48 mins
Release Date: August 30, 2013
PLOT: The story of Kung fu Grandmaster Ip Man (Leung) and his relationship with Gong Er (Zhang).
WHO’S IT FOR? Movie-lovers from both the art house and the multiplex who are ready to take Kung fu seriously.
One could wager that while adored for its spectacle, Kung fu is a misunderstood art form. Especially when performers like Bruce Lee can be more readily identified with their fictional martial arts characters than the true skill behind their personal craft, this expressive form which has been around for thousands of years often can seem like only a distinct ingredient to storytelling at best. Set up a movie, fill it in with progressive fight sequences, fin. Kung fu appears in reverent homages like The Matrix as a spice to fighting style, but such films don’t provide a strong wallop of the true power of the form.
Enter The Grandmaster, a film wholly committed to the greatness of Kung fu, as presented with a strong sense of romance and precision from a director known for those very two cinematic components, Wong Kar Wai. In a very general movie-going sense, this project is a dream come true. It is authentic about the history and intricacy of Kung fu, presented with China’s most popular actors, as told by a filmmaker who is focused on exacting the beauty of his visual more than the simpler pleasure of spectacle. If I may pull a Weinstein and put it in American terms: this would be like if There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson made a ballistic action movie about a national hero, while still maintaining his distinct authorship within the handling of a genre that can easily be simplified.
Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster is a life story that presents a real human being as if he had the physical power of a fictional character. Leung’s Ip Man did exist, and lived an opera of a life that is told in The Grandmaster somewhere between boundaries of legend and biopic. This film tracks Ip Man’s life, especially in the spectrum of tumultuous Chinese political history (such as when the Japanese invade China, and he refuses to collaborate with the enemy). His most famous note comes at the end, though it is certainly not the most important event of this movie — Ip Man would eventually train martial arts superstar Bruce Lee.
This reverent tale of a Grandmaster and the art form he taught is enriched with performances, especially those from Leung and his on-screen romance, Zhang. With both of them throwing their own punches and kicks, they too continue the element of precision that is characteristic of Kung fu; they handle their quietest moments that weigh on their expressive faces with the same restraint as their segmented, heavy choreographed fight sequences. The incredibly charismatic Leung has an immediate cool to this title role (it’s not just the hat), and Zhang has a constant tension within her.
While discussing this import, it is worth noting that the American release of The Grandmaster has had twenty minutes slashed off from the original Chinese cut. From what I’ve seen of the original Chinese edition, the American version has distinctive changes in terms of story order, which completely reshape the movie for Westerners, leaving entire side character stories to the wayside. This is where discussing Kar Wai’s script gets a bit messy.
The American cut (of which this is indeed a review of) has the priority of packaging it essentially as a true story of an unbelievable (but real) bad-ass, and the art form that made him a legend. When watching the American film first, witnessing Ip Man awesomely kick the crap out of numerous thugs in the rain, I thought I was watching an intelligently stylized but still fictional Kung fu film, another homage to the form.
This film has bits of Ip Man’s historical context, along with romantic interest, but this version of The Grandmaster is streamlined to provide action. Thankfully, in the midst of constant title cards that usher the story along, heavy voiceover from Leung, and text on-screen naming who’s who, the ultimate storytelling of The Grandmaster is able to still shine through. The drama is also, including an incredible scene of heartbreak in the third act between Leung and Zhang.
Thoroughly visualized, The Grandmaster has at least five grandiose scenes of Kung fu, executed with excellent choreography matched with exact editing. With these fight sequences playing out in breadths — not as an onslaught of punches and kicks, but a meditative expression of slow motion fists and feet — they have a richness to them that pushes the impression of Kung fu beyond Matrix-like spectacle. By particularly utilizing close-ups, The Grandmaster provides strong stylized detail to its many physical moments, which might be treated superfluously elsewhere. Here, the Kung fu of The Grandmaster does not become numbing, but intoxicating.
Amongst its cinematic gorgeousness, one element that stilts the visual grace of The Grandmaster’s is Kar Wai’s slow motion. It allows for great detail at first during a night fight scene of Kung fu in the rain, but then carries this visual over to moments of dialogue as if it were a skipping DVD (a reminder to not worry about your projection when viewing the film).
In spite of this chopped ‘n screwed USA cut of The Grandmaster, Kar Wai’s film succeeds in making a lasting impression about its serious Kung fu passion. Similar to how it handles its center figure, The Grandmaster doesn’t just inform with facts, but enlighten about the intricacies of Kung fu — its numerous styles, spiritual nature, and the true precision behind it. It is presented more like dance, as handled with a beneficial sense of romance from Kar Wai. At the very least, The Grandmaster will change the way viewers understand Kung fu. Kar Wai’s film is a heavy fist against the preconceptions that have been trying to simplify its legacy for years and years.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10