"The Grandmaster" is a style-heavy film that is completely dependent on the persuasions of its audience. Longtime martial arts fans will love it. People who appreciate gorgeous cinematography will love it a little bit less. Everyone else will brand it somewhere between "OK" and "tedious."
In a sense, "The Grandmaster" is a companion film, if not a prequel, to 1993's "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story." It tells the story of Ip Man, the legendary Kung Fu master best known for training Lee. His story opens in pre-World War II China, as a Grandmaster named Gong Yutian (played by Qingxiang Wang) is preparing to pass the torch in the face of advancing age. He gives his blessing to two successors, one from each of China's rival regions in the north and south. Ma San (Jin Zhang) is the man for the north, and Ip Man (Tony Leung) the south.
But the best-laid plans of the Kung Fu community are tossed aside when war comes to China via Japanese invaders. Ma San becomes a collaborator, and eventually betrays his mentor. Ip Man refuses that path and winds up exiled in Hong Kong, cut off from his wife and children.
From here the story focuses on Ip Man's relationship with Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), daughter of the former Grandmaster, who is determined to avenge her father's betrayal. In fact, after a certain point, the film isn't about the Grandmaster at all. Their relationship may strike the analytical viewer as odd, seeing as Ip Man's marital disloyalty was conceived during a heated sparring match with his new squeeze, but to its credit, the story never becomes too adulterous.
"The Grandmaster" is a beautiful film with a pervasive moodiness that invades every painstakingly composed shot and cinematography that is every bit as artistic as the fighting styles it so clearly adores. But its strengths double as its greatest weaknesses. Director Kar Wai Wong leans heavily on close-ups, rarely giving the viewer any kind of wide-angle view, which makes the film intimate and ponderous and claustrophobic at the same time. In fact, so much of the film is dedicated to fight scenes and moody stares that anyone hesitant to watch a film with subtitles should be reassured: there's really not that much dialogue to follow.
The fight scenes feature the kind of choreography and direction that makes them feel more like dances than brutal exchanges and help you understand why they are referred to as "arts" in the first place. The opening brawl, set during a rainstorm, just looks fantastic. But by the end of the film, the fights' complexity and subtlety often leaves the audience feeling like they are just watching the same thing over and over again.
The tension of the story of "The Grandmaster" is deeply rooted in the different fighting philosophies that create the divisions between the north and south factions. But when all the fighting looks the same, that tension feels undeserved. For those outside the genre, "The Grandmaster" is at its best when it offers context for its story, such as the scenes that reference World War II, lending weight to circumstances that are more relatable than regional Kung Fu rivalries.
It's interesting to note that Ip Man's narrative begins when he's already into his 40s, which is fascinating considering the grace and athleticism integral to the martial arts. Maybe the reality is glossed over a bit for the big screen, but watching a middle-aged Ip Man do battle against scores of combatants does echo some of the satisfaction (and yes, incredulity) that came from watching Liam Neeson wreak havoc in the "Taken" movies. Maybe "middle aged guys" could be a third target demographic for "The Grandmaster."
"The Grandmaster" is rated PG-13 for generous (mostly bloodless) martial arts violence, some mild sensuality, and one brief usage of the F-word, which turns up in the subtitles.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.