By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Longtime cult director Kar-wai Wong, legendary for such Hong Kong productions as “In The Mood For Love,” “Happy Together,” and “Days Of Being Wild,” probably wishes for a box office smash hit to supplement his longstanding critical acclaim. And with his latest film, “The Grandmaster,” a historical martial arts extravaganza, he’ll probably get it.
An biographical account of martial arts master Ip Man, the film follows a conventional martial arts arc for most of its length, which should draw in everyone who loves vivid fights. But it also takes an idiosyncratic turn toward the end, reminding us that director Wong ultimately follows his own path.
Ip Man was born in 1893 in Foshan, Guangdong, China, and died of cancer in 1972 in Hong Kong, where he had lived permanently since 1949. His earlier years saw a fair amount of back-and-forth movement between those two places, and he worked two separate stints as a Foshan policeman. But he began to learn martial arts at age 13, from the much-older Wah-shun Chan, a master of the Wing Chun fighting style.
As portrayed by longtime Wong collaborator Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Ip Man flares onscreen as a stylish, laconically witty fellow in the longstanding tradition of movie martial arts masters. There are only two true martial arts positions, he chuckles: Upright, or on the ground. The secret to mastery, he explains, is to stay upright.
Needless to say, the truth is a bit more complicated. The first major fight sequence in the film takes place in pouring rain, and shows Ip Man vanquishing multiple opponents. Throughout the film we see equally stylish and improbable fights, although sadly, rapid crosscutting prevents the fights from evolving naturally onscreen. Most of the stars aren’t proficient fighters in real life, and these rapid-fire edits cover for their lack of mastery. Still, it seems frustrating.
Ip Man learns, teaches, and takes a wife, Wing-sing Cheung (played by Korean actress Hye-kyo Song). But his married/family life seems, from this film at least, largely irrelevant. The three main people in Ip Man’s life appear to be the elder master Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang), Gong’s daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), and arch-nemesis Ma San (Jin Zhang). Ip Man will face many enemies and meet many friends over the course of the film, but his young adult life revolves around those three.
The film plays out against the background of the Second Sino-Japanese War, from 1937 to 1945, between Japan and China. Japanese-Chinese hatred ran lava-hot at the time, and the conflict touches all of the major characters, whether they’re collaborating with the Japanese to acquire power, urging on the Chinese side, or simply trying to stay alive amidst chaos.
Ip Man becomes a master in the middle of this whirlwind of history, although he struggles, as first, to keep a Wing Chun fighting school open. Gong Er loses her father to treachery and vows to spend the rest of her life seeking vengeance.
It’s this vengeance, long-awaited and lavishly depicted, which forms the final climax of the film. (At least, it does in the North American print, much shorter than Wong’s original.) As they meet for the last time, Gong Er tells Ip Man what she did, how and why she did it, and how she’s accepted the consequences. This is all recounted in another lavish fight sequence, but one not involving Ip Man at all.
And so Gong Er pulls the story away from the man who’s supposed to be its focus. But this doesn’t feel sloppy, only odd. She’s insisting that her own history is as vital, as crucial, as Ip Man’s own — for that one moment, at least. And for that moment, until she ends her tale, she earns that claim. (end)
“The Grandmaster” is currently playing Seattle theatres. Check local listings for locations, prices, and showtimes.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.