Director: Wong Kar-wai
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Song Hye-kyo, Zhang Jin, Zhao Benshan
Wong Kar Wai first announced an Ip Man passion project nearly 10 years ago. Because of difficulty securing funding, among other challenges, it was shelved and Wong went on to direct a handful of other films, all the while waiting for the right moment. Years went by and along the way the team of Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip made two hugely successful Ip Man films that spawned a resurgence of interest in the fabled martial arts master. Now in 2013, we finally have Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmasters, a history of Ip Man and the paths he took from early life in Fushan up to his death in 1972. Along the way he encounters various other martial artists and the secretive and sometimes tragic customs of the martial arts world are explored.
When considering a film about Ip Man, it is difficult to separate any new film from the aforementioned film starring Donnie Yen. Being a HUGE fan of the work of director Wong and the work of actor Tony Leung, I had faith that this new retelling of the history of a legend would be different enough to stand on its own. I may not have known exactly what to expect, but what I got was one hell of an compelling and exquisitely produced martial arts epic.
With a script also written by Wong, the story takes a decidedly more intimate approach to telling the story and relies less on lionization of the man and focuses instead on a more realistic human portrayal. This approach provides a more dramatic look at this figure and the acting chops of Leung provide for some stellar acting. Seemingly effortless in his craft, Leung here is at the top of his game and demonstrates once again why he is the best actor in Hong Kong or China. Zhang Ziyi is featured heavily as a friend and fellow martial arts master and she is better than she has been in years. With smoldering intensity and a fully and emotionally driven performance, I saw a lot of the same talent that made me an instant fan in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The rest of the cast tend to get lost amongst the focused storytelling with the exception of Wang Qingxiang, and the appearance of Yixiantian (Chang Chen) and Madam Ip (Song Hye-kyo) is nice, but their development is woefully lacking considering the talent these two bring to the table.
Featuring exquisite and, for the most part, traditional kung fu choreography by master action director Yuen Woo Ping, this film certainly does not slouch. Leung is an actor foremost and his multiple fights are both well performed and believable. What he may lack in martial arts skill he more than makes up for in screen presence and body movement. Of particular note is the fantastic action featuring Zhang Ziyi’s character; she uses a mesmerizing open palm technique that is one heck of a dynamic looking style. Setting her character apart from the many other direct styles used by men, she is formidable and free flowing in a way that is difficult to describe. Throw in cameos by champion fighter Cung Le and Woo Ping himself, and you have some of the most beautifully choreographed fight scenes ever. For those that have studied Chinese martial arts, you will find a bit more appreciation for the forms, stances, and positioning during action scenes, it is realistic and truly indicative of the beauty of the art; and something non-practitioners generally miss.
In the end, The Grandmasters is terrific filmmaking that succeeds on a number of levels. While there are a number of fight scenes, the dramatic elements are the real crux of the film and the action serves the story rather than the reverse. Romantic and illuminating, this biopic transcends simple action filmmaking and shows how the craft of movies can create affecting and engaging experiences. Providing truly fantastic action coupled with compelling storytelling, Wong Kar Wai has done what I once thought impossible; made the definitive Ip Man movie.
You may enjoy this film if you liked: Ip Man, Fearless, In the Mood for Love