Korean film master Wong Kar Wai shows a different picture of the wing chun martial arts teacher Ip Man‘s life.
Director: Wong Kar Wai | Stars: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi
Budget: 40 million | Box office: 65 million
It‘s strange to start watching a film which story you know already, or at least it seems you know it. The case with The Grandmaster is exceptional for me as a martial arts film fan, because it tells one of the greatest real stories connected to this phenomena – the life of Ip Man. Unusually, this story was already told few years ago in one of the best films both in martial arts and in general, called Ip Man. It deeply moved not only me but after finally reaching wider audiences lots of people and it still has the place in IMDb Top 250 chart. That is the perfect film for everyone to get a first glimpse into the world of martial arts movies and a true marvel for the genre fans. The Grandmaster, however, is not.
It was interesting to see how Kar Wai will adapt his expressive and kind of gloomy style, at least in my impression from his earlier films, such as Hollywood debut My Blueberry Nights. And except few a bit overdone and really long scenes the style works beautifully. Not surprising that the film got an Oscar nomination for cinematography. For costumes to, so it shows a really great picture. It‘s kind of a canvas full of fluid martial arts movements (choreographed by Woo-ping Yuen, who was behind almost all the famous martial arts scenes in recent couple of decades), philosophy connecting martial arts and life, deep emotions like revenge, duty, commitment, love. In some ways it reminds the Olympian Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s grand works such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers and even the great Ang Lee‘s wonderful journey Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Story wise The Grandmaster is also very different from, lets say, original Ip Man and that‘s a big relief as it would be really boring to watch the same things again, even despite the really interesting destiny which was set for the martial arts master. Some parts are connected between two films, but Wong Kar Wai takes very different path than Ip Man director Wilson Yip. The problem is that at least in IMDb The Grandmaster is introduced as just a film about „Bruce Lee teacher“ where actually it is much wider.
The big surprise for me was a major role for the famous Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi. It‘s almost equally the story about the daughter of the most respected martial arts master, disobeying her father and trying to prove her worth and eventually avenge him. It‘s quite interesting to follow her story, but in such way the film retreats even further from the Ip Man himself. And the decision to include a separate thread about a police agent does not connect with the main plot and except for one impressive brutal fight is useless. Unless, as might also be with parts of Zhang Ziyi role, this character is a tribute to real Ip Man’s life – he was a policeman and an officer of Kuomintang, as portrayed in the film.
In the end I would call The Grandmaster a really interesting experiment and interpretation of martial arts film idea. It‘s beautiful even if a bit too long to watch, with a pleasant soundtrack and special mood. It doesn‘t work as a biography of the master though, so even if the earlier Ip Man is also a far off inspiration of the wing chun teacher‘s life, I would heartly recommend to watch it first. I remember after watching that film I couldn’t think about anything else for a few days and just read everything I could find about Ip Man, wing chun, and watched any footage of him and Bruce Lee. Thankfully, there are such videos in YouTube so at least here it‘s possible to get a glimpse who the grandmaster really was.