Our story begins in 1936, as we near the retirement of martial arts extraordinaire Master Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang). Finding a worthy successor seems like something of an impossible task, until the arrival of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the grandmaster of Wing Chun. We then proceed to chronicle his life and relationship with the master’s daughter, and skilled fighter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), his travels from from Foshan to Hong Kong, and how he went on to become the now widely renowned trainer of Bruce Lee.
Martial arts, as evident in the latter word, is an art-form, it’s cultural, creative and at times, a thing of sheer beauty. This is evidently a notion that Kar Wai revels in, as he presents this epic production with a stylistic grandeur, celebrating the elegance of combat, rather than the brutality. We study the philosophy of martial arts more so than the combative elements, thriving in traditionalism. Kar Wai romanticises over the past with an affectionate nod in the direction of classic Hollywood, where this film certainly takes pointers.
Yet that does work both ways – and while this is where the Weinstein cuts potentially come into play, The Grandmaster does feel as though it is catering too fervently for a broader audience. Bringing this masterful director’s work to a wider crowd is by no means a bad thing, but you do fear the content has been compromised accordingly. It’s unsubtle for the most part, such as when we meet characters for the first time and their name and description crops up in the top right hand corner – as though we can’t figure it out for ourselves, or at least enjoy attempting to do so.
Undoubtedly a visceral and visual treat – The Grandmaster is a stylistic endeavour that ensures the tale of Ip Man – told before on screen in Wilson Yip’s 2008 efforts – has a new and unique voice, with a strand of storytelling than can only be likened to that of Kar Wai. But regrettably this is not quite as nuanced a piece as we’ve seen in his oeuvre, with a body of work so accomplished the bar has been suitably raised, and as a result of that, it’s not always so easy to reach.