Ip Man: Break from what you know and you will know more.
This quote from Wing Chun grandmaster, Ip Man, is particularly apt when speaking about THE GRANDMASTER, a film based on his great and honourable life story. Co-written and directed by an actual grandmaster of cinema, Wong Kar-wai (IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE), THE GRANDMASTER is a significant shift in pace and style for China’s auteur. To tell this martial arts tale, he continues to implement key elements of what defines him as a visual director, like extreme close-ups and slow motion moments, and he continues to practically coddle each shot to ensure its individual opportunity to shine, but the breadth with which he brings it all together feels rushed and irregular. Wong has pushed himself beyond his comfort zone, and I’m certain he learned a great deal from the experience, but while THE GRANDMASTER does come together from time to time, it doesn’t feel grand at all; it feels more like a learning exercise than anything else really.
Essentially, my biggest problem with THE GRANDMASTER is the editing, which makes perfect sense when you consider that the film has been cut down from its original 130 minute run time twice already. I watched the latest cut, the cut for American audiences, and I found it to be incredibly choppy, both overall and in the moment. The first third focuses on Ip Man’s early life in the 1930’s. Ip (played by Wong regular, Tony Leung) is widely known to be the best there is in his style in Foshan, China, and he rises humbly through the ranks to become the Grandmaster of the South of China. This portion is action packed and feels like a cross between a philosophical think piece and a cliched kung fu picture. Then suddenly, war. The film shifts its tone so drastically at this time that it can jar the viewer. It shifts again in the third act, which called into question for me, whether or not Wong knew how to tell this story from the onset. Even the editing in the fight scenes tends to be disjointed at times, making it difficult to appreciate the true immensity of the choreography, as designed by Woo-Ping Yuen, who worked on KILL BILL 2 and KUNG FU HUSTLE.
The final stretch of the film was what worked best for me and yet also, is what turns the entire thing on its head for me as well. In it, the story changes direction and goes back in time to tell the tale of a woman from Ip’s past. Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), a martial arts master herself, who cannot say so because she is a woman, but did in fact once beat Ip when no one else was watching, elaborately avenges her father’s death before reentering Ip’s life, the two of them now in Hong Kong in the 1950’s. The film ends shortly after this, just after tacking on Ip’s later success as a teacher and his star pupil, Bruce Lee. The focus on Gong is engaging and left me wondering if Wong was quite sure which of these grandmasters’ stories he was actually telling. This is perhaps exactly what he meant to infer but the overall lack of confidence in the film’s tone leaves a nagging doubt in my mind. THE GRANDMASTER is a noble effort but comes nowhere near the mastery this man is truly capable of.