If you feel like you’ve already seen a film about Ip Man, that’s because there was a 2008 Ip Man starring Donnie Yen. The Grandmaster is equally impressive, and while Yen looks a lot more like Ip Man than Tony Leung, Leung has a particular charisma that, coupled with Phillipe Le Sourd’s stunning cinematography, is explosive. (Sorry Donnie.)
However, if you don’t know anything about Ip Man, here’s a quick rundown: he was a master of Wing Chun, a style of martial arts, lived through the second Sino-Japanese War and taught martial arts in Hong Kong, where he trained a range of students, including the legendary Bruce Lee.
The Grandmaster focuses less on the war, which the earlier Ip Man focused on, and flickers through many events in Ip Man’s life, with a focus on the seismic shift in Chinese martial arts in his lifetime. As you’d expect from a Wong Kar-wai film, it’s highly stylised with a non-linear narrative that flits between various points in Ip Man’s life, sometimes jumping to the point of view of Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of China’s Grandmaster, Gong Yutian. Gong Er should really get equal star billing in promotions, because from a screenwriting perspective, she drives the plot forward and the film actually revolves around her.
In case there’s any confusion, Gong Er is a fictional character, but based on the real life Shi Jianqiao, whose father was captured and killed by northern warlord Sun Chuanfang when she was 20. Ten years later, she tracked down and killed Chuanfang with a Browning pistol. The revenge plot is really what drives the story forward: in The Grandmaster, Gong Er’s father is killed by the man who was supposed to be his successor, Ma San, and eventually Gong Er fights and kills him. A tragic character, she is brilliantly written and in my opinion one of the best characters of the year. Like most of the martial arts practitioners in the film, she is restrained but lethal, and also luminous and complex.
With plenty of insightful, reflective voiceovers, Tony Leung’s Ip Man is a multi-faceted, philosophical character that helps make The Grandmaster not just another kung fu movie, but something thought-provoking and moving. His life is told in sweeping narration that covers events from Ip Man’s initial training in Wing Chun to the Japanese invasion of China to his time in Hong Kong. There is definitely some artistic liberty taken with his life, but the film doesn’t purport to be the definitive story of Ip Man’s life, but a more philosophical look at his life and at martial arts.
Unfortunately, a lot of the other characters don’t get the same kind of development Ip Man and Gong Er do – there are a lot of characters in this film and not all of them get the screen time they deserve. Most are martial arts masters of different schools, and one that I think should have been better explored was Ip Man’s wife, Cheung Wing-sing (Song Hye-kyo). While she seems like an interesting character when first introduced, she’s easily swept aside when Ip Man leaves his hometown of Foshan during the war.
There’s a grand tradition of kung fu movies from Hong Kong (with Ip Man’s student Bruce Lee part of that tradition), and recently, a grand tradition of kung fu movies about Ip Man. Wong Kar-wai does a splendid job at making The Grandmaster something new and visionary: every single frame is carefully considered and each fight scene is dizzingly well-coordinated. (A few fun facts: Tony Leung actually broke his arm twice during filming, and caught bronchitis after some particularly gruelling shoots in the rain, while Zhang Ziyi was a dancer before she moved into acting.)
In short, The Grandmaster is visually electrifying, in no small part thanks to Yuen Woo-ping’s action choreography and Leung and Zhang’s onscreen chemistry (and individual charisma).
As for its translation from the Chinese market to the international one: I’m not a fan of the Weinstein Company after what they did to Snowpiercer (another stunning film), and I understand The Grandmaster suffered from a cut from original release to worldwide release, from 130 to 108 minutes. While the cut I watched was still masterful, I’m definitely waiting for the original cut to be released.