THE GRANDMASTER. Starring Tony Leung, Zhang Zi Yi, Zhang Jin. Directed by Wong Kar Wai. Rated M (Violence and infrequent coarse language). 130 minutes.
A very ambitious film, a long time in pre-production, something of a labour of love for director, Wong Kar Wai. He made some action and historical films in the past but moved for a decade into more romantic, melodramatic films like In the Mood for Love. Now he is back in action.
Or, rather, he is back in action, but he is also back in romance, and in reflection, even contemplation, as he takes his audience into the traditions of martial arts.
This happens almost immediately, with striking music and chords, a painter’s palette and then an introduction to one grandmaster, Ip Man, in Foshan, 1936, and a wonderfully choreographed arts battle as Ip Man takes on a gang of thugs, all filmed in the rain. Martial Arts fans will know that Ip Man was something of a legend, especially in Hong Kong and was the guide for Bruce Lee (who is quoted at the end). But, this film offers a portrait of Ip Man (with the considerable presence of Tony Leung, star of several of Wong Kar Wai’s films). For those who want more information, there are two Ip Man films with Donnie Yen.
We are also introduced to another grandmaster who is about to retire, who is looking for a successor and who wants to preserve his techniques secret as a legacy for his family. Ip Man is successful, beating another contender Ma San (Chen) who is narcissistic and later accepts a post with the puppet-government serving the Japanese Occupation.
The other central character in the film is Gong Er, the daughter of the retiring master, who has learned the arts and is able to best Ip Man in contest.
However, Foshan is put under martial law. Ip Man loses his wealth as well as his wife and two daughters. He wanders the country during the war and finds himself in Hong Kong in the late 1940s.
Gong Er trains as a doctor but to preserve her father’s legacy, she foregoes marriage and sets up a clinic. She too moves to Hong Kong. As does Ma San who has confronted her father, betraying him.
Chronologically, the film meanders somewhat in time, focusing on one character, losing the others and then returning. There is a dramatic ending which brings all three together for a final contest.
While the film is not great storytelling, it is most impressive as a spectacle, powerful cinematography, vistas, close-ups, angles…
But it is with the Martial Arts that the film excels. There is dramatic choreography and superb editing. Indications are given of the range of moves, of the different traditions from different parts of China, and the control and concentration in the true exercise of the arts rather than just bouts of violence.
An unusual Chinese mixture.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Released September 4 2014.