Directed by Wong Kar-wai
Starring Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang
The great Wong Kar-wai, one of the premier cinematic stylists of our day, seems overwhelmed at times by “The Grandmaster.” Blending the markings of a kung fu epic with scenes of stark emotional longing, Kar-wai’s latest movie offers a hybrid that’s hard to decipher, even in the cut that he specially assembled for western audiences.
Tony Leung plays Ip Man, a famed Wing Chung grandmaster who counted Bruce Lee among his many students. The movie sets his story against the tumultuous currents of 20th Century Chinese history, paralleling his rise to prominence with the collapse of the republic, the Japanese Occupation and the end of the Chinese Civil War. Ziyi Zhang is Gong Er, daughter of a northern grandmaster, with whom Ip Man forges a longstanding relationship in the years after she challenges him in a fight.
The film is packed with impressionistic touches, ranging from slow-motion close-ups of punches and kicks as rain pelts the ground to dialogue that consists of broad philosophical musings about martial arts. The fight scenes are designed to showcase Kar-wai’s notion of kung fu as a way of life, not merely a physical endeavor, but they’re too abstract to leave a visceral impact. Simultaneously, the story rushes through a lot of history, with interstitials shepherding the transition between periods, and few of the details register.
“The Grandmaster” is at its best when it traverses more comfortable Kar-wai territory, depicting the bond between Ip Man and Gong Er in tender moments during which the actors convey great depths of feeling. The movie sheds its intellectualism and goes for the gut here. So, a quiet scene depicting the characters’ letter correspondences, for example, means more than all the grandiose historicity that Kar-wai offers.