Hong Kong cinema – even more so than Hollywood – likes to try and recreate its previous successes. Think that the Bond series is a long running? Then check the filmography of folk hero Wong Fei Hung and redefine what you consider prolific.
In light of this, Wong Kar Wei’s 2013 addition to the four or five films about seminal martial artist Ip Man barely registers on a chart of flogged horses and overkill. Being a Wong Kar Wei project, ‘The Grandmaster’ is a little different to other Ip Man films, focussing more on the biography of the man who began the demystification of the hitherto esoteric world of kung-fu, rather than ninety minutes of kicking and punching. Though there’s still a decent amount of kicking and punching. All put together by no less than the legendary choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, the fight coordinator of dozens of Hong Kong action films as well as the Matrix and Kill Bill series in the West.
‘The Grandmaster’, is very much a Wong Kar Wei work, with his usual themes of thwarted love and death set against stunning imagery and a tendency to wander away from the main thrust of the film. It follows Ip Man (Tony Leung) as he turns 40 and is asked to represent the southern fighting styles against the northern forms in match designed to elect a new national Grandmaster. An honour the wealthy but modest Ip Man humbly accepts.
His opponent is Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), daughter of aging Master Gong Yutian, there is a deep romance felt by the couple but because of honour, family and protocol their love remains unconsummated. Ip Man loses the bout and the couple go their separate ways. The film then charts Ip Man’s life against the back drop of war, famine and his eventual migration to Hong Kong, where he opens his first school.
Tony Yeung is the perfect actor for a Wong Kar Wei picture (something the director agrees with as he has now cast him seven times); his strong, handsome almost impassive features are able to deliver incendiary levels of emotion while scarcely moving a muscle, which might be alarming if you weren’t caught up in his depth of feeling. Opposite Zhang Ziyi, they make for an extraordinary pairing, and their infrequent screen time together adds to the power of their meetings. Culminating in a beautiful and heart-wrenching final scene together.
The balance of drama next to Yun Woo Ping’s fight scenes are expertly handled and like all the best action sequences, they help drive the plot along but here Wong Kar Wei also uses them to illustrate the essence of the characters involved as they express themselves through their movements, emphasising martial’s ‘art’ suffix.
Yet, that digressive nature of Wong Kar Wei is a problem here, the film deviates into sub plots that though interesting – by helping to flesh out the protagonist’s motivations and history – were ultimately too distracting to be worthwhile. This gives the ‘The Grandmaster’ an uneven rhythm which jarred me out of the trance-like state I had entered for the first half of the film. Another distraction was the tendency for dialogue to be rounds of proverbs and sayings, but having lived in China for a while, this is something I encountered there in real life. However for my Western movie watching sensibilities, it does seem a little trite.
A good but not a great a film which is a shame after the many problems encountered in getting it to the screen. Although it has been rumoured that the Weinstein brothers who “present” this film edited the original with the same relish of Gordon Lish on a Raymond Carver short story, so it’s quite likely that this is inferior to the original Chinese release.
‘The Grandmaster is out on 3rd December’