'The Grandmaster' connects with solid action, acting
05:00 AM, Aug 22, 2013
When it comes to inspiring biopics, the story of Ip Man is about as big as Lincoln.
Since 2008, Ip Man, the famed martial arts trainer of Bruce Lee, has been the subject of no fewer than four films.
The Grandmaster (*** out of four, rated PG-13, opens in limited release Friday) marks the fifth and most ambitious yet, an historical opus that is equal parts ballet and biography, though the second component pales in comparison with the first.
Directed and co-written by estimable Chinese director Kar Wai Wong (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love), Grandmaster has some of the most impressive martial arts scenes since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Like that Ang Lee Oscar winner, Grandmaster takes martial arts and turns it into a spectacular dance, one the actors trained years to learn. And it shows: The first hour of the film is as gorgeous as Tiger, with the plus of being a real story.
The film tracks Ip Man through World War II and his honing of Wing Chun kung fu, which he would make popular throughout the world. Set during the Japanese occupation, Grandmaster chronicles China’s growing rift between martial arts masters, particularly Ip Man’s deadly, minimalist “Southern” style and the flashier “Northern” style of fighting.
Tony Leung plays the title role, and he’s spot-on. A favorite of Kar Wai Wong (he starred in Love), Leung has the stillness and intensity to give Ip Man the quiet confidence of a guy who could kick Bruce Lee’s butt.
But the discovery of the film is the stunning Ziyi Zhang (Memoirs of a Geisha, Crouching Tiger). As Gong Er, the daughter of a rival grandmaster from the North, she is utterly convincing as a warrior who understands the philosophical principles of the martial arts, as well as the practical ones that break your nose.
There are scenes of gorgeous brutality that would make Quentin Tarantino salivate, and at its heart, Grandmaster is an art film. A slow-motion fight in an ornate brothel is cinematic poetry.
Unfortunately, Grandmaster can take the stiff cadence of an art film, too. Characters speak elliptically about the art of fighting, and the film has been cut drastically from its original four hours, giving the final hour a choppy, hurried feel. And there are dramatic elements of the real man’s life, including the death of two daughters, that go all but ignored in the film.
And, like Lincoln, Ip Man has become lionized, if not deified, through the years. Grandmaster is no exception: In some scenes, it looks like Ip Man is literally walking on water.
But that will matter little to fans of Ip Man and the art he practiced. Stylish and well-acted, Grandmaster is a martial-arts film that has found that tricky balance of martial and art, and it connects more often than it misses.