The Grandmaster (2013)
Reviewed by: Gaijin84 on 2013-06-29
Summary: Wong Kar-wai sets a high standard...
Wong Kar-wai returns to cinemas with his biographical take on Wing Chun master Ip Man. Tony Leung Chiu-wai plays the lead role with Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen as rival masters in supporting fashion. The movie opens amid the shuffling of power within the martial arts community in Foshan. Gong Yutian (Wong Hing-Cheung), the designated leader of all the different schools, is retiring and needs to designate a successor to run the southern schools. Yutian’s hot headed disciple Ma San (John Zhang Zin), already chosen as the northern school head, believes anyone must beat him first before challenging his teacher. Yutian feels differently and Ma is sent packing back north after unnecessarily fighting and embarrassing his Sifu. Despite his relatively young age, Ip Man is chosen as the representative from the southern schools to vie for the leadership. As a test, Ip must beat three other teachers that represent the arts that Yutian is a master of, namely Bagua, Xingyi and Hung Gar. Passing this test, Ip is allowed to prove himself to Yutian, but their battle is more of philosophy and grace and straight hand to hand combat. Ip proves himself worthy, but Yutian’s daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) feels the need to vindicate the family’s art and take revenge for her father’s defeat. During their challenge match, a mental connection is established and Ip will spend the rest of his days trying to learn the secrets behind Gong Er’s unbeatable “64 Hands” technique. As time passes, the Second Sino-Japanese war breaks out and Ip is forced to flee to Hong Kong after Foshan is brutally occupied by Japanese troops. There he must again establish himself and his art, all while seeking Gong Er and her knowledge. Meanwhile, Ma San’s assault of his master forces Er to challenge him and take back the right to teach her family’s art. The two square off in a snowy train station, Ma San representing the Xingyi side and Er the Bagua side, the two arts that Yutian successfully merged into one. The battle leaves Er permanently wounded, and when Ip sees her again in Hong Kong many years later she has given up teaching and the martial arts world altogether. 1950s Hong Kong serves as the backdrop for the closing of the film, with different schools vying for control, including seemingly ruthless arts practiced by violent men.

The Grandmaster is an absolutely wonderful film, merging not only fantastic and exciting fight scenes, but martial arts philosophy and the struggle that human emotion plays in this arena where emotion can sometimes be the most fatal attribute to have. Tony Leung and the undeservedly much maligned Zhang Ziyi are excellent in their respective roles. Their reportedly exhaustive training pays off in spades as both represent the arts they showcase without going over the top. Their understated love story is also done very well as you can feel the sense of regret and loss that can come with emotions that are never fully expressed until it is too late.
In a return to form, Yuen Woo-ping’s fight choreography is amazing, and his ability to show the fluidity of internal forms is almost unrivaled. Although some may expect that a Wong-Kar-wai film may get mired in slow-moving, dialogue-driven scenes, there are so many quality action pieces that I never felt the pace slipping. This is coming from an unabashed Wong-Kar-wai fan, so opinions may differ. Stand out fight scenes for me include the homage to Bruce Lee’s pagoda level fights from the unfinished Game of Death and the challenge fight between Zhang Ziyi and John Zhang in the train station. Both are top notch and inspiring to watch. My only gripe with The Grandmaster is the amount of loose ends that accumulate by the end. As with all Wong Kar-wai films, there is a large amount of editing that is done before the final product is shown, and in this case he seems to have lost some key characters in the process. Chang Cheh plays “The Razor”, an agent/assassin for the Chinese government during the war who is a master of Baji(quan). He has a short scene with Zhang Ziyi and reappears again in Hong Kong, but only to showcase his art in a few devastating fight scenes. Other than that there he has no connection to the rest of the film. I imagine that in the original vision of the film he challenges Ip Man, but this never occurs in the version I saw. It leaves a somewhat sour taste as to what could have been. There is also a sub-plot involving Yutian’s martial art master brother that is never fully fleshed out and explained. These quibbles are minor setbacks in the grand scheme of things though, and as a whole it is an excellent film that deserves high-praise.
Reviewer Score: 9