Wong Kar Wai is a legend of Hong Kong cinema, his reputation established by movies such as In The Mood For Love and Chungking Express. These films are remarkable for their unique visual aesthetic, all neon and rain, and for their atmosphere of melancholy and yearning. But Wong’s last couple of films have been misfires “ the uneven sci fi of 2046 and the unsuccessful foray into Hollywood of My Blueberry Nights. So fans of the director could be forgiven for approaching The Grandmaster with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, especially since, a couple of shorts apart, it’s his first film in six years.
For his comeback, if it can be called that, Wong has returned to Hong Kong, and teamed up with his regular leading man, Tony Leung to tell the story of Ip Man “ an expert in Wing Chun kung fu, and the man credited with popularising that form of the martial art. He is also renowned for being the tutor of one Bruce Lee.
Ip Man lived an interesting life in interesting times, coming of age as a martial arts grandmaster in 1930s China where feuding clans from the North and South (he was from the South himself) argued over the supremacy of their forms of fighting in sumptuous surroundings and with extraordinary formality. Ip Man then lost everything during the war, after he refused to become a collaborator with the invading Japanese forces, before trying to rebuild his life in Hong Kong in the fifties. The thread running through all these events was his chaste romance with Gong He (Zhang Zhiyi), daughter of a Northern grandmaster, and herself a martial artist of incredible ability, as well as a fiercely independent spirited woman, unsuited to the patriarchal, hierarchical times in which she lives.
All the Wong trademarks are in place in The Grandmaster. This much is clear from the opening fight scene in which Ip Man fights off numerous assailants during a torrential downpour. The camera cuts to close ups of spray flicking off Ip’s hat as he pirouettes, blocks and strikes. There’s a satisfying combination of balletic grace in the fight scenes combined with meatiness to the blows “ there’s a real sense of powerful strikes connecting with flesh that could easily have been lost with the artful slo mos (the fight scene choreography was done by Yuen Wo-ping, who worked on Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Matrix. There’s an amazing fight sequence at a snowbound train station that’s worth the price of admission alone.
Also in place is the melancholy and the yearning, with the relationship between Ip Man and Gong He, beautifully played by the two leads. Tony Leung shows once again that he is well worthy of his many, many awards, while Zhang Zhiyi more than holds her own. And maybe the strength of her performance is the source of one of the film’s problems, in that there’s the sense that perhaps her story would have been more interesting and that maybe Wong thought that too, given how much screentime her story is given. Ip Man himself is something of a cypher, restrained at all times and who doesn’t seem to have a significant character arc “ reacting with composure to huge changes that life throws at him. There seem to be no events that define him, or character shaping moments. This is probably a fair reflection of a life, but disconcerting in a movie. But it adds to the occasional sense that the film consists of simply a series of events, rather than a coherent plot, an issue not helped by the way minor characters appear and disappear with barely an introduction or a personality sketched in.
There’s a lot to like about The Grandmaster, but it does have some fairly noticeable flaws. However, during the imperfect bits, it’s simple enough to just sit back and enjoy the visuals. And the melancholy. And the yearning.