Susan Granger’s review of “The Grandmaster” (The Weinstein Company)
While martial arts movies rarely intrigue me, this is made by Wong Kar-Wai (“In the Mood for Love”), who adds an erotic touch of poetic, romantic yearning to the real-life story of Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-wai from “Hero”), the wing chun legend who trained Bruce Lee.
“Kung fu: two words. One horizontal, one vertical,” he intones in the opening sequence. “The one lying down is out; only the last man standing counts.”
In 1936, as an innovative fighter from a wealthy Foshan family in the South, Ip Man is chosen to demonstrate his fluid skill for Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang), the retiring ‘bagua’ master from the snowy North. But Gong Baosen’s daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) worries that father might lose for the first time ever. As various warriors cleverly maneuver for superiority, their competition seems to foreshadow China’s upcoming civil war. In linear chronology, the rest of the film follows Ip Man’s relocation to Hong Kong after the Japanese invasion and Gong Er’s eventual showdown with her father’s defiant former protégé, Ma San (Zhang Jin).
Five years in the making and, reportedly, 16 years in gestation, this is Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai’s 10th feature. Although Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is spectacular, William Chang Shuk-Ping’s production design impeccable and the fight scenes, choreographed by stunt coordinator Yuen Woo Ping (“The Matrix”), exquisitely mesmerizing in slow-motion, the transitions seem sluggish and the editing is choppy. Perhaps that’s because Wong Kar-wai’s original cut was longer; probably, some of the connective tissue and character development was left on the cutting-room floor. Instead, there are voice-overs and explanatory titles.
Martin Scorsese is lending his name for promotion purposes, just as Quentin Tarantino sponsored Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express” on its DVD release. Problem too: since the narrative stops in the 1950s, this sweeping, action epic, regrettably, never gets to Ip Man’s most famous pupil, Bruce Lee.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Grandmaster” is a somber, visually stunning, stylized 7 – in Mandarin/Japanese with English subtitles.