★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Director Wong Kar-Wai’s epic stab at the life of the legendary Ip Man, a martial-arts master who taught Bruce Lee, was reported to initially be more than four hours in length. From this rough cut, the Weinstein Company has released a two-hour film that bears all the extravagant style that perfectionist filmmaker Wong can muster, but it suffers from a sketchy biography that lurches along without rhythm.
Mostly set between 1930 and 1952, The Grandmaster follows Ip Man’s years in Foshan, the loss of his family and fortune during the second Sino-Japanese War and his eventual self-imposed exile to Hong Kong, where he became a renowned martial-arts teacher. Exploding onto the screen with the smiling Ip Man (Tony Leung) facing off against an army of opponents in a rain-drenched alley at night, Wong uses a pre-credits confrontation to make clear that his approach to history will be elegiac and his fight sequences will be exaggerated, filled with the kind of gravity-defying wire work featured in wuxia films.
Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), a martial arts master from the North, comes to Foshan to name impudent Ma San (Zhang Jin) as his heir. When he encourages the South to name their own champion, his daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) worries that he will lose, for the first time in his life, to Ip Man. But instead of a physical showdown the two warriors engage in a philosophical contest. Gong Yutian declares Ip Man the winner, and later that night his daughter attempts to regain the family’s honor by squaring off against Ip Man in a stunning staircase fight in an elaborate brothel. Romantic yearning and jaw-dropping action flow together as Wong demonstrates why so many admire his work. The scene sets the stage for another of the director’s explorations of how time and fate are the tragic barriers between his characters and emotional fulfillment.
Unfortunately, the film’s jarring edits end up baffling the narrative. For instance, much is made of Ip Man’s desire for a suitable winter coat before his trip north to see Gong Er, but the starvation death of his daughter is relegated to a passing mention. Leung’s strangely all-knowing voice-over is clearly meant to provide contextual glue to the sprawling start-stop story, but it’s a clunky and unenlightening attempt to connect the dots. Wong seems more interested in providing a poetic chronicle of Ip Man’s martial arts traditions and values than any insight into the man himself. Only a final teahouse conversation between Gong Er and Ip Man hints at the heartbreak and regret that is suppressed beneath their impassive exteriors.
What remains to be savored are The Grandmaster’s sumptuous visuals and bravura fight sequences. Expertly orchestrating motion, texture and an endlessly vibrant spectrum of light and color, Wong composes an astounding visual symphony. He brings together ravishing period costumes, dramatic natural elements and arresting settings with painterly precision and intricacy. A brutal fight between Gong Er and Ma San in the rain atop a train platform as locomotives race by is one of those iconic movie sequences that lingers in the memory and influences filmmakers to come.
It’s almost enough to compensate for disastrous storytelling. But not quite. One can only hope that Wong, who took 14 years to complete Ashes of Time, dedicates himself to releasing a more definitive version of The Grandmaster, honoring his breathtaking cinematography and gorgeously stylized action sequences with a biography that is equally engrossing.