Starring Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Cung Le, Elvis Tsui, Lau Shun, Lo Mang, Yuen Woo-Ping, Zhang Jin
Fight Choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping
Directed by Wong Kar-Wai
When news came that another Ip Man film not starring Donnie Yen was being made, I had to roll my eyes. Much like Wong Fei-Hung everyone has to have their own take on Ip Man. Most have been okay to really good, but none have come close to the quality of the Wilson Yip/Donnie Yen series. Now toss in Wong Kar Wai, a prolific and one of the most talented filmmakers..well, anywhere, and I thought this was on the road to greatness.
But along the way Wong Kar-Wai decided to take a detour.
The film starts off by showing a rain-soaked fight between Ip Man (Leung) and a legion of gentlemen led by Iron Shoes (Le). After Ip Man tears ass through them we learn of his early years learning Wing Chun, and then his marriage and life with Cheung Wing-Sing. Ip Man’s life seems to be going peacefully until The Northern Boxing GrandMaster Gong Yutian arrives, challenged the southern schools to find their own Grandmaster, as he is retired and has made his son Ma San the Northern Grandmaster. The southern masters agree that Ip Man should represent them, and things get complicated when Gong Yutian’s daughter Gong Er (Ziyi) arrives, and Ip Man finds his heart may be going to her, but arrival of the Japanese and his flight to Hong Kong threatens to undo the perfect life he’s made for himself, and Gong Er must deal with a treacherous brother and ailing father in order to protect her family’s martial arts legacy. But how much is that worth to her?
My issue with the film, and maybe it is a matter of expectation, is that it’s a little deceptive, and maybe not in a good way. I went into this thinking I was watching a Ip Man film. But from a narrative perspective that’s not really the case; this film is really about Gong Er and her family. The Grandmaster title isn’t referring to Ip Man, but rather Gong Er. Ip Man is nothing more than a supporting character. This is not to say that Tony Leung doesn’t do a good job, because he does. He’s stoic as Ip Man, but at the same time conflicted. Zhang Ziyi is also excellent as Gong Er, a strong woman who was unfortunate enough to not be born a man, at least in her father’s eyes. The issue here is that the film takes a narrative turn away from Ip Man to follow Gong Er, and then jumps back to Ip Man toward the end, pretending as if the previous hour we had been watching an Ip Man film the entire time. Did Wong Kar-Wai simply decide that Gong Er was a more fascinating character to follow? I felt that there was a whole Ip Man film left on the cutting room floor, and with Wong Kar-Wai’s reputation, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was actually the case. I have to admit, however, the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. It almost looks as if it could have been a black and white film, in the way that the camera plays with the shadows and golden skin tones, contrasted by the opening of the film in a rainstorm that never looked so good.
The fights are solid, though it had more wirework than I was comfortable with, but one was a big notch above the rest: Gong Er versus her brother Ma San at the train station. It was a cinematically gorgeous fight, and with the train passing by it added a layer to the composition of the visuals. Zhang Ziyi and Zhang Jin do excellent work here. Yuen Woo Ping still has a great big bag of tricks in his tool belt, but aside from looking beautiful, it just felt like something was missing.
Wong Kar Wai’s film asks the question “What is Kung-Fu?” but I’m not sure he knows the answer. Maybe that’s the point.
Kiai-Kick’s Grade: 6
The Grandmaster is a gorgeous film to look at, and Zhang Ziyi does a great job as Gong Er, and Tony Leung lights up the screen as Ip Man. If only Wong Kar Wai knew which movie he wanted to make.