Ever since the young son of a Chinese opera singer punched and kicked and screamed his way into history we in the west have been fascinated by kung fu. Bruce Lee’s combination of exotic moves and unbridled badassery proved irresistible and some of us have never been able to get over our kung fu film addiction. As in any art form, the films come in wildly varying degrees of quality. From the badly dubbed Saturday morning flicks we all watched to art house masterpieces like House of Flying Daggers and Fearless. I’m elated to report that Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster is of the latter variety and is as far removed from those Saturday chop socky movies as Citizen Kane is removed from a Wayans bothers crapfest. This is the kung fu film as a work of art, martial arts by way of Martin Scorsese, who gladly sponsored the film’s American release.
The story follows master Ip Man, played by Tony Leung, the most famous practitioner of the fighting style Wing Chun and, as you’re sure to get tired of hearing, one of Bruce Lee’s most influential teachers. Given the recent trend of Ip Man biopics in the last few years comparisons are inevitable. While those films focused on the character of Ip Man, here the scope is widened to present the relationship and sometimes rivalry between the North and South schools of martial arts. The film opens with a virtuoso fight scene in the rain and as opposed to the fast paced sequences of the earlier movies here the action is slowed down for your viewing pleasure, the equivalent of a slow cooked dinner, the camera delicately focusing on punches, kicks, reactions and footwork. The cinematography is exquisite with director Wong Kar Wai exhibiting grandmaster traits of his own with his camerawork and some of his shots are a delight to watch.
While the redoubtable Leung does an excellent Ip Man I was personally gratified to see the return of Zhang Ziyi, the doyenne of martial arts flicks (I’m sorry Michelle Yeoh). You remember her from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Oh Zhang how I missed thee! I don’t care how many sex scandals you’re involved in, you can use your forbidden moves on me anytime. As the daughter of the grandmaster of the North, Zhang provides the film with its emotional punch and her story encompasses the final 3rd of the movie and, suitingly for a film about a martial art created by a woman, hers is not the only well written female role.
The other presence that contributes to the richness of the film is of that other master: Yuen Woo-Ping. For the faithful he won’t need any introduction. As for the rest of you heathens, if you’ve seen a memorable fight scene within the last 30 years chances are Woo-ping choreographed it. “Fearless”, “Kung Fu Hustle”, “The Matrix”, “Kill Bill”, “Fists of Legend”, “Iron Monkey 2” among many others all owe their superlative fighting sequences to the man who was quoted as saying “Make the audience feel the blow”. In The Grandmaster he brings a lifetime of expertise to fight scenes involving a variety of fighting styles like Tai Chi, Xin Yi, Hung Gar, Bagua and a bunch of others I won’t even pretend to be familiar with. He also makes a brief cameo as Chan Wah-shun, teacher of Ip Man.
Speaking of various martial arts, one of the few quibbles I have with the film is that here Ip Man is given almost mythical status. The Wing Chun master seems to have intricate knowledge of a wide ranging variety of styles. Now, this may well have been the historical case but it seems to ring hollow when presenting a character so accomplished in his own style. Another point of detriment is no fault of the film itself. The movie is presented in Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles. Now if there’s one thing that “Merica hates more than exercising and science is reading. That single aspect alone, I believe, will insure the movie won’t reach the wide audience it deserves. Pity. The film is a masterpiece of movie making and a genuine love letter to the martial arts from a director and cast working at the top of their game.