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An espionage thriller set in the 1950s and adapted from the novel "Year Suan/Plot Against" by May Jia. Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays a blind man who works for a piano tuner. He is recruited for a spy mission because of his exceptional hearing.
Ip Man's peaceful life in Foshan changes after Gong Yutian seeks an heir for his family in Southern China. Ip Man then meets Gong Er who challenges him for the sake of regaining her family's honor. After the Second Sino-Japanese War, Ip Man moves to Hong Kong and struggles to provide for his family. In the mean time, Gong Er chooses the path of vengeance after her father was killed by Ma San. Written by
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Wong's signature themes and artistic flourishes are still very much alive, but 'The Grandmaster' lacks a focused narrative for a compelling exploration of Ip Man's life
"Don't tell me how good your skills are, how brilliant your master is and how profound your school is. Kung fu - two words - one horizontal, one vertical. If you're wrong, you'll be left lying down. If you're right, you're left standing. And only the ones who are standing have the right to talk."
For all intents and purposes, the film began as a biopic of one man to be more specific, Ip Man, the influential kung-fu master who was instrumental in spreading the Wing Chun style around the world and who was perhaps better known for being Bruce Lee's master. But in the midst of exploring Ip Man's life, Wong must have been suddenly struck by the thought - What exactly makes Ip Man so special? Or even better, why should a movie set in the golden age of martial arts be solely about one grandmaster?
And so, despite Leung's omniscient voice-over, 'The Grandmaster' is in fact not about Ip Man alone. Be warned therefore, if you are expecting a movie focused on Ip Man, because you're likely to be sorely disappointed as Tony Leung reportedly is that you're likely to know more about the Man from the Donnie Yen films.
Indeed, the narrative is the film's biggest handicap, though to be fair, it only becomes apparent later on. The first half-hour begins strongly with a rightful focus on Ip, and key highlights include his initiation into martial arts by his master Chen Heshun (Yuen Woo-Ping) and his loving marriage to Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye-kyo). Ip's first challenge would come with the arrival of Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), a venerable kung fu master from northeastern China looking to consolidate his power in the southeast even as he retires.
After Ip goes on to win the battle of minds with Gong, the latter's daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) stands up to challenge Ip yet again in a bid to restore her family's reputation. That duel also marks a turning point for the movie, which shifts away from Ip and explores the vendetta that ensues between Gong Er and her father's power-hungry protégé Ma San (Zhang Jin) against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of China.
Against the better advice of her elders, she forsakes her betrothal to avenge the death of her father at Ma San's hands, which culminates in a thrilling battle set at an old railway station in Hong Kong one New Year's Eve. Where is Ip Man's involvement in all this? Admittedly there is little.
Though Wong does bring Ip back into the picture towards the end of the film, his audience is likely to have grown too emotionally detached from the character. A scene towards the end that portrays supposedly the last time Ip met Gong Er is infused with the director's signature sense of longing and regret as the latter reveals her feelings for the former, but how that bears relevance to what Wong is trying to say about Ip or Gong Er's tumultuous lives is too obscure.
In fact, throughout the film, Wong offers little insight into the person of Ip Man. What might have been a meaningful portrait of his relationship with Yongcheng is lost when the latter is practically forgotten in the second half of the movie. We learn little too of Ip's relocation to Hong Kong, and how he built up his reputable school for Wing Chun. All things considered, a more coherent portrait of Gong Er actually emerges from the movie.
Rather than regard it as a Ip Man biopic therefore you'll be better off seeing it as Wong's philosophical musings on martial artists. Fans of the auteur will recognise these familiar themes from his previous works, but Wong's treatment is still unparalleled in conveying regret, longing, and unspoken desires whether is it Ip Man and Gong Er's mutual affection for each other, or Gong Er's lament for a life less fully lived.
Le Sourd's visuals are also particularly ravishing in the action sequences, designed with much imagination and flair by veteran choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping. The opening sequence that sees Ip Man take on a whole gang of men along a rain-soaked street is filmed with utmost clarity on the beauty and precision of the moves, with the subsequent duels between Ip Man and Gong Yutian as well as Gong Er equally breathtaking to behold.
Keenly aware of the actors' limitations, Yuen goes for elegance over spectacle. Nonetheless, both Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi also perform impressively given their lack of a martial arts background, the months of training to get them prepared physically for their respective roles paying off in the grace and confidence by which they execute their moves.
Nonetheless, Zhang easily trounces Leung in the film's dramatic scenes, the former's combination of grit and vulnerability making Gong Er a more compelling figure than Ip Man. The fault of course isn't Leung's alone, as his usual penchant for nuance and understatement unfortunately working against his portrayal in a narrative that pretty much relegates his character's account as a marker of the passage of time.
Of course, narrative was never a strong suite in Wong's films, which typically were mood pieces boosted by his signature artistic flourishes. These trademarks are still very much alive in 'The Grandmaster', which is easily one of the most beautiful kung fu movies ever made. But plot plays a much more important role here than in Wong's other films, since it is ultimately through Ip Man's experiences in life that we come to understand his deeper introspections. This is where Wong's film stumbles, relegating Ip Man to a sideshow instead of placing him front and centre and given all that hype and expectation of Wong's Ip Man biopic, the cut we see here can only be regarded as a disappointment.
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