The martial-arts film seems to be, for Asian directors, what the Western once was for their American counterparts, something one had to do, like getting a tattoo or driving cross-country.
The epic Wong Kar-wai, of "In the Mood for Love," "My Blueberry Nights" and other imagistic enchantments -- films that have forsaken traditional storytelling for visual splendor -- has already done his swordplay film: "Ashes of Time," the almost comically convoluted thriller of 1994. With "The Grandmaster," he revisits the form with a far more serious, even somber mien, the results being probably the most sumptuous kung fu flick ever made and one in which the simple joy of a simple story is MIA.
Which is odd, because the action is abundant, balletic and expertly choreographed (by Yuen Woo Ping, whose vast credits include Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). It has to be because Wong is telling the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the reputed sine qua non of martial-arts practitioners, associate of Hong Kong and American star Bruce Lee, and a man whose history paralleled an epoch in Chinese life that was tumultuous (is there any other kind?).
There is much action. The romance with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), sole heir to her father's lethal style of kung fu and the only woman who could pique Ip Man's interest, is tender. But the parade of his rivals and colleagues, the competitions and arcane trips into the nuances of combat, are strictly for the aficionado. And while the lushness of Wong's pictures is a joy in and of itself, it may not be what everyone wants or expects.
Wong has been very upfront about the fact that he has re-edited the film for its American audience (a longer version has played in Hong Kong). One still feels, however, like something is missing -- connective tissue between the arcs of the story, perhaps, or just a fully realized story. At the same time, "The Grandmaster" is the work of a director whose work throughout his career has been visually exhilarating, sensuous, even sublime. To that end, "The Grandmaster" doesn't disappoint.
PLOT The story of the fabled Ip Man, mentor of Bruce Lee and master of all kung fu.
RATING PG-13 (mostly non-bloody martial arts violence)
CAST Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi
BOTTOM LINE Visually exquisite, narratively inert