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The recent trend in Kung Fu movies has been biopics. Of course, there have been many, many biopics about Chinese folk heroes (2002’s Jet Li-starrer Hero being one of many, for example), but the more recent films take a decidedly more down-to-earth look at real-life figures compared to their more mystical “wuxia” predecessors. In 2006, Jet Li starred as Huo Yianjia, a Chinese martial artist best remembered for his international challenges to fighters all around the world. A few years later, a film was made about legendary Wing Chun practitioner Ip Man, a martial artist who trained a young Bruce Lee in Hong Kong. That film, aptly titled Ip Man, starred Donnie Yen and spawned a sequel. Several other projects, include a television series, began development as well.
The character of Ip Man obviously became something of a hot commodity in Chinese film and media, so much so that Wong Kar Wai, the legendary director behind such celebrated fare as In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express, wanted in on the action. An unusual choice for an action director, Wong nonetheless delivered an interesting film with some cool fight choreography courtesy of Yuen Wo Ping. With usual leading man Tony Leung (who is great as Ip) as well as worldwide famous Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang (also great), Wong’s The Grandmaster is a Kung Fu film less about Kung Fu and more about melodrama and romance – and the end result isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The Grandmaster is a disjointed film by design (some critics have even called it “unfinished”). Leung, as the enigmatic Ip Man, recounts his life in bits and pieces, mostly chronologically, though not always. His time spent in Foshan as leader of the southern Chinese martial artists, as master of Wing Chun, is documented, as is his time spent with the Gong Yutian, the aging Northern master who cedes control of the Kung Fu alliance to the younger Ip. The most melodramatic and romantic portions of the movie follow Ip’s complicated relationship with Gong Er, Yutian’s brilliant but flawed daughter, who seeks to carry on the good name and reputation of the Gong family. Ip is married with children, but his heart obviously pines for the beautiful Er, and the film captures his pain at their separation quite well (a Wong Kar Wai film staple).
The film’s second half becomes largely about Ip setting up his martial arts school in Hong Kong and the struggles that come with that, as well as meeting up with the old masters who have relocated to Hong Kong, and then reuniting with Gong Er. After losing his family fortune as well as two of his daughters during the Second World War, Ip tries to rebuild his life in Hong Kong, but still struggles with the day to day grind of being a Kung Fu master away from his family and home culture. Meanwhile, Gong Er has become a doctor and relocated to Hong Kong after avenging her father and making a vow that she will never continue her practice of the family’s Kung Fu style. Their reunification is poignantly shot and heartfelt.
Yuen Wo Ping’s action choreography is always interesting to watch, but it is also clear that Wong Kar Wai is not the best at framing action scenes. I wish the camera would pan out a few more times during the longer fights. As such, the choreography can be somewhat difficult to follow. The Grandmaster relies somewhat heavily on CGI as well, which is almost always disappointing to me in a Kung Fu film (the end result looks a lot better than Fearless however). The best fight, a showdown between Zhang and a treacherous member of her father’s school, is set during a wintry New Year’s Eve with a running train in the background, and it is beautiful to watch. An earlier scene, featuring Yutian and Ip is also well done. While not always brilliantly shot, the film is at least always interesting to look at.
This is a melodramatic film that isn’t for everyone. It is best not to go in expecting something on the level of a Jackie Chan film or a Wuxia-style epic. The Grandmaster is a beautiful film to watch, and a mostly successful one at that. It isn’t always compelling in its narrative, but the good stuff is really good. I appreciated the thoughtfulness of the main characters, and Leung and Zhang are great in their respective roles. Wong Kar Wai’s first attempt at an action epic is wholly above average and worth checking out – it isn’t like a lot of other martial arts films, but that’s not really a bad thing as it turns out.