The Grandmaster is a quasi-biopic surrounding the life of martial arts master and teacher of Bruce Lee, Ip Man, a figure whose story has already made it to the big-screen in 2008’s Ip Man and its sequel. This re-telling of his story feels less concerned about the man however and more in martial arts itself with writer and director Wong Kar Wai using his subject as a platform for a much wider story about the tradition and history of the practise. If anything, whether intentionally or not, Ip Man is the least interesting part of The Grandmaster, which were it not for all of its redeeming qualities, would be a damning statement for this biopic. There is a lot to like here though and what the film lacks in insight, it makes up for in style and beauty. I can only think of a handful of films that this year have blown my away with its visuals and The Grandmaster is one of them. Each shot is prepossessing; a well thought out and intricate vision of attractiveness, so softly lit that at times it feels like it were from the 1930’s to 1950’s, the time in which the action takes place. Whilst its stunning photography is never in doubt, the same can’t be said about the films narrative. Cut down by half an hour for worldwide audiences, the story quite clearly suffers with large chunks of time such as the whole of Japan’s invasion in WWII being replaced with title cards that bring us up to date years later. Emotional and important beats that are only referenced to briefly, like the death of Man’s two children are sorely missed and our lead protagonist takes a back seat the entirety of the films third act. But again, there is a silver lining in the form of Ziyi Zhang’s character Gong Er, the daughter of Man’s predecessor, a female in a male’s world who wants to achieve more than her set path towards being a doctor. In Gong Er, the film finds its most interesting character, a legitimately powerful and strong character who is played to absorbing affect by Ziyi Zhang.
Martial arts wins out over everybody though and Wong Kar Wai treats it as a character in its own right. One of the film’s central moments comes when Man must face various opponents in video game fashion, before he can face the big boss at the end, the Grandmaster from the north. Each of his opposer’s have a different fighting technique, breaking it down for Man and us as an audience before battle. Kar Wai slows the action right down during this and other set pieces, so that we can feel the impact of each kick, each punch, and admire the mechanics and ballet-like skill of this artistry. It’s this aspect, a love letter to Kung Fu, that really drives The Grandmaster forward and people expecting a standard biopic about Ip Man may be disappointed, his most famous achievement of mentoring Bruce Lee being a simple footnote of this story. Whilst I can’t help but feel that the lost thirty minutes would make the film even better, The Grandmaster is never the less an attractive, exciting and for the most part engaging tribute to Martial Arts that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of the genre.
Image credit to http://www.blackfilm.com