The Grandmaster (2013) / Action-Drama
aka Yi dai zong shi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, some smoking, brief drug use, and language
Running time: 108 min. (US version), 130 min. (Chinese version)
Cast: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Wang Qingxiang, Son Hye-kyo, Le Cung, Yuen Woo-ping, Chang Chen, Zhang Jin, Zhao Benshan
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Screenplay: Wong Kar Wai, Zou Jingzhi, Xu Haofeng
Review published September 1, 2013
The unfortunate story behind The Grandmaster is how much of a labor of love it had been for its director/co-writer and acclaimed auteur Wong Kar-Wai (My Blueberry Nights), who spent the good part of a decade developing, filming and editing it to the point where it finally saw a release (filming wrapped way back in 2010) -- only for him to miss the mark, both as story writer and as editor. It is a beautiful film to look at, at the very least, but it is vastly over-edited, utilizing more slow-motion shots than those at regular speed, which, in a film that has as little story as The Grandmaster, makes the momentum proceed at an almost glacial pace.
It also doesn't help that in the many years of development of The Grandmaster, there have been no less than three other films with Ip Man as the main protagonist. However, the others don't have the same artistic sensibility of Kar-Wai's lavish treatment, which lends a certain uniqueness to keep the production from being a mere retread. Many of Wong Kar Wai's favorite motifs are here, particularly the ennui that occurs from unrequited love, and the deep melancholy among the characters who lament the changes that inevitably occur due to the ever-present passing of time. He also likes to see his characters as troubled artists rather than grand inspirers, which is why, no matter how much success they are afforded, they can't shake feeling that there is more to life than being the best at what they do.
Ip Man's main claim to fame is that he had been the master of martial arts who taught superstar Bruce Lee his Wing Chun style of kung fu, which subsequently made it a global phenomenon. This film starts off many years prior to this occurring, in 1936, where we find Ip Man (Leung, Infernal Affairs 3) a resident of the southern Chinese city of Foshan, where many martial arts masters seem to congregate, exchanging techniques and testing them in head-to-head confrontations to see which school is best. It's just prior to the run up of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the grandmaster of the North, Gong Yutian (Qingxiang, Chinese Zodiac), is in town to announce his retirement, and to pass on the title not only to the best of the North, but also to the most worthy from the South.
Though the competition is fierce, Ip Man is declared the worthy one, though Gong Yutian's daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi, TMNT), contests the result. In the battle between Er and Ip Man, the two uncover an attraction amid their adversarial roles, though he is married with children. When the war sees Ip Man driven from town and family, he flees to Hong Kong, with his destiny taking on a new path as a teacher of his ways of martial arts mastery. Meanwhile, Gong Er has a challenge of her own on taking down her father's murderous adversaries.
Once the film is over, the one thing most will take away from the film will not be the fighting style of Ip Man or even his overall story, as The Grandmaster doesn't tell the story in a compelling enough way to view it except at a distance. Rather than Ip Man, the subject will likely be Wong Kar-Wai and the look of his film, which features several fight scenes in the rain, many of them close up and heavily edited to the point where it becomes difficult to distinguish what's going on in the action until one of the combatants inevitably is punched or kicked through a window, door or other object that breaks on impact. We also have less time to explore Ip Man because the story tells just as much about Gong Er, to the point where she appears to be the main character of the second half, after the main story of Ip Man, more or less, wraps up.
As a biopic on Ip Man, it's severely lacking much exposition and character development, and as the characters are mostly moody and ponderous rather than expressive, we don't get much in terms of an emotional or intellectual investment in any of their story arcs to be engaged in anything other than the look of the film. The Grandmaster, at the end of the day, serves only as a showcase of the talent of its director, and to a lesser extent, the choreography of Yuen Woo-ping (Fearless, Unleashed), two grandmasters of their own particular art forms. Though Wong Kar-Wai has filmed a kung-fu film before, with 1994's Ashes of Time, that brilliant-but-muddled film suffered from the same melancholy delivery that sacrificed story for the sake of creating a mood amid slow motion shots of balletic fighting in and around water. Kar-Wai may not care about energetic battles, but he sure likes his fight aesthetics dark and splashy.
After so many years working on the film, and his actors going through rigorous training to get the moves just right, it's a major disappointment that The Grandmaster isn't one of the greatest kung fu films of all time. It's not even a particularly good one, either, for those who aren't already on board as to thinking that anything Wong Kar-Wai touches is genius. The actors give it their all physically, and Woo-ping never misses in terms of his fight choreography, but the script is a major letdown. No matter how much Kar Wai slices it (and dices it), he's unable to make all of these pretty pictures come to life. For a film that had been tied up in delays for years due to its main creator's desire for perfection, the fact that it's a tedious mess is the most mystifying element among many from such a talented filmmaker.
Note: Though you may be tempted to jump to life and head toward the exit, you should know that some additional fight scenes are shown about a minute or so into the end credits.
©2013 Vince Leo