Wong Kar-wai forgoes his usual genre for this interesting take on the Ip Man story.
“The old rules don’t apply here in Hong Kong.”
Time jumps, frames within frames, selective lighting, Tony Leung. These are all hallmarks of a great Wong Kar-wai film. A stream of consciousness, slow-moving narrative, punctuated by moments of emotional turmoil is exactly what people want when they go to see one of the man’s films. So why does The Grandmaster, a biographical film on legendary kung fu instructor Ip Man (Tony Leung), feel so weird? Is it because biopics don’t tend to skip major moments in a person’s life, only to focus on entirely separate characters for huge chunks at a time? Or is it because, in his first foray into martial arts cinema, this doesn’t really feel like one of Wong’s fortes?
A huge, unfortunate problem seems to be that The Grandmaster came out at the same time as a flurry of other Ip Man movies, spearheaded by Wilson Yip’s great 2008 film. By the time this one came out, there had been a sequel to Ip Man, as well as a Herman Yau version of the story. On top of that, 2013 featured not only this film, but Final Fight which came out two months later and a television series. The Grandmaster would have to stand on its own amid a flood of biographical retellings, and Wong hadn’t released a film in his native Hong Kong in 9 years, or any at all in 6, so there was a lot of pressure to get it right.
Making his version of the story his own was probably the smartest move. This is where The Grandmaster’s strengths lie. Wong, along with fellow screenwriters Zou Jingzhi and Xu Haofeng, creates a film that’s less about the man and more about martial arts (with an emphasis on the arts). In terms of strict biographical content, we actually learn very little about the man in question, instead getting short lessons about the various styles of kung fu shown in the film. The opening acts of the movie deal with the southern masters seeking an heir to the grandmaster title, and we get to see a fair few different schools at work, and learn what makes each style different.
These moments are fun, and feature some interesting action, but Wong’s directorial style isn’t really suited for this sort of filmmaking. The fights are good and nicely varied but framed and shot behind glass or at extreme close-ups, it’s not as easy to appreciate each school, nor the choreography. That said, those sequences are also extremely beautiful – they might not be the huge smackdowns we’ve come to expect, but play instead like a piece from an opera. Ultimately still, The Grandmaster is strongest when it forgoes the martial arts stuff and focuses instead on the drama between Ip and the people he interacts with, notably rival and potential love interest Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), daughter of Gong Yutian – the northern Grandmaster.
Stephen Teo has described Wong’s movies as “best seen as a series of interconnecting short stories even within a single film, with chapter headings divided by characters,” which remains true even in The Grandmaster. The film cuts back and forth in time, giving us small moments within Ip’s life, before switching over to entire segments featuring other characters. There isn’t a whole lot of flow or narrative consistency, and while this is usually a positive for Wong’s movies, the same case can’t be made here. The whole thing just feels a little bit incoherent and all over the place. Somewhere amidst the out-of-nowhere sequences and the scenes of little happening is a great movie, but this version of The Grandmaster I saw simply isn’t it.
I understand that there exists multiple cuts of this film, which will definitely affect how you judge the finished product. The most widely-available version in the West is the Weinstein company release, which cuts out nearly half an hour of content and rejiggers some of the scenes around. I can’t comment on how the other, longer cuts look but this would explain why the movie feels so broken up in places. However, that doesn’t explain Wong’s baffling overuse of slow motion, which is present in roughly 80% of the movie. Almost nothing moves at regular speed here which makes for some great moments, but gets crazy tedious near the end. That about half of them seem to be of just feet slowly sliding around wooden floors doesn’t help matters.
It’s quite telling, then, that despite what I’ve said I don’t actually dislike The Grandmaster. It boasts some excellent acting from Tony Leung – who is once again perfectly cast – and Zhang Ziyi, whose on-screen chemistry might not be quite as great as Leung and Maggie Cheung’s in In the Mood for Love, but is still pretty endearing. The Grandmaster still contains many sequences I greatly enjoyed and as the story goes on, you do warm up to it more. It’s just a shame, then, that there are simply better Ip Man films, better Wong Kar-wai films and better films about kung-fu as an art. The Grandmaster tries really hard and it shows but despite its title, it’s a jack of all trades, grandmaster of none.
Verdict: The Grandmaster tries but struggles to live up to the reputations of everyone involved.
Overall entertainment: 6/10
Violence: Stylised 5/10
Action: 4/10 for actual fighting
Snack of choice: Have some cake, if you can tear it from my hands
Station sequence: Nice to see the maiden voyage of the world’s longest train.
The Grandmaster (2013)
Also known as: 一代宗師 (Ancestral teacher of a generation)
Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Writers: Wong Kar-wai, Zou Jingzhi, Xu Haofeng
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai – Ip Man
Zhang Ziyi – Gong Er
Song Hye-kyo – Cheung Wing-sing
Chang Chen – “The Razor” Yixiantian
Zhao Benshan – Ding Lianshan
Wang Qingxiang – Gong Yutian
Zhang Jin – Ma San
Yuen Woo-ping – Chan Wah-shun
Xiaoshenyang – Sanjiangshui
Cung Le – Tiexieqi
Shang Tielong – Jiang
Lo Hoi-pang – Uncle Deng
Chin Shih-chieh – Gong clan elder
Wang Jue – Gong clan elder
Lau Ga-yung – Yong