Film Review: The Grandmaster

Kung fu master Ip Man has to re-establish his reputation when he moves from Mainland China to Hong Kong in this handsomely mounted biography.

Famous today for training kung fu star Bruce Lee, Ip Man has been the subject of several recent movies from Hong Kong. The Grandmaster arrives with backing from Martin Scorsese and Samuel L. Jackson, as well as a full publicity push from The Weinstein Company. Their combined efforts will help raise the profile but not the box office for this moody outing from director Wong Kar Wai.

The first new feature from Wong since My Blueberry Nights in 2007, The Grandmaster is for the most part a sober, straightforward biography of Ip Man, punctuated by a handful of impressively staged martial-arts battles. The story hits on many of the same points as other Ip Man movies. Ip Man, played here by Hong Kong star Tony Leung Chiu-wai, popularizes a form of martial arts known as wing chun in his home province of Foshan. During the Japanese invasion, World War II, and the Communist takeover of China, Ip Man loses his fortune and most of his family, and is forced into exile in Hong Kong. To survive, he forms a martial-arts school, gradually attracting talented students like Bruce Lee.

Shot by Philippe Le Sourd, and edited in part by co-production designer William Chang Suk Ping, both longtime collaborators with Wong, The Grandmaster has a lush but somber look, especially during its early sequences in Foshan. Surprisingly for Wong, the story is direct and easy to follow, with few of the elisions and flashbacks found in his other films.

Wong finds the key to Ip Man's life in his relationship with Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of a martial-arts master from the bagua school. They meet to defend their separate styles of martial arts, and their rivalry intensifies after an inconclusive battle in a local brothel. Events keep them apart, but an emotional connection remains over the years.

Leung, who had no serious martial-arts background, trained for years with one of Ip Man's students for his role. Similarly, Zhang, who has a background in dance, studied for months for her part. Their fights were choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, perhaps best known in this country for his work on the Matrix series.

The big martial-arts set-pieces, including an opening fight at night in the rain and one on a wintry train station platform, are more impressive than involving, perhaps because the kung fu looks so careful, even studious. The rest of The Grandmaster is a mixed bag: a lot of suffering through the years, with Leung in a reverent, sacrificial mode; a little martial-arts philosophy; and some grandly romantic gestures that signify the passing of an era.

The problem is, The Grandmaster is never much fun, either as action or romance. Leung's interpretation of Ip Man is well-thought-out and credible, but lacks Donnie Yen's athleticism and Anthony Wong's stoic calm—two other actors who have portrayed Ip Man. The Grandmaster works best if you've never seen a kung fu movie before. If you have, Wong Kar Wai's film may strike you as a beautiful and expensive missed opportunity.