Fans of kung fu movies will probably rate Wong Kar Wai's beautifully filmed and meticulously choreographed “The Grandmaster” a four-star movie. Just the fact that it's about legendary Ip Man, the grandmaster who trained martial-arts megastar Bruce Lee, makes it a must-see title for them.
Those who aren't fans of the genre will find the historical narrative jumbled, and a sense that the garbled plot exists mainly to link great fight scenes. This is partly because the movie was trimmed by 22 minutes from its Chinese version, adding onscreen text and narration to condense the Chinese history in the story.
But almost any movie fan might appreciate “The Grandmaster” as a visually stunning film and an awesome display of martial arts skill.
Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography, including lots of extreme close-ups and exquisite lighting, evoke mood. An emotive musical soundtrack accentuates underlying feeling. Detailed and sumptuous settings, particularly the interior of a house of prostitution called the Gold Pavilion, are a pleasure to take in.
And the actors in leading roles give amazingly focused, intense and physically awesome performances. Fight choreography is by Yuan Woo Ping (“The Matrix,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”).
Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan calls the movie "a meal of all desserts," and I can see what he means. It's short on story substance — and barely touches on the Bruce Lee angle at the very end — but it's certainly a feast for the eyes.
The movie opens in 1936, explaining that China's kung fu camps are divided into north and south by the Yangtze River and by differing styles of fighting. The north's widely respected grandmaster, Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang), decides to retire. He visits Foshan, in the south, hoping to choose a successor who can unite the two camps.
His chief student, Ma San (Jin Zhang), is a great fighter but too much of a hothead, so Gong Yutian passes him over in favor of Ip Man (Tony Leung, “Lust, Caution”). Ma San becomes an instant hostile, and the reconciliation doesn't happen — a metaphor for the political division of China at the time.
An opening fight sequence pits Ip Man against a horde of fighters in a courtyard amid a pouring night rain. A combination of sound effects, use of slow motion and music up the dramatic ante. Ip Man, wearing a white snap-brim hat, darts and whirls and wreaks havoc on all comers, and the hat stays firmly in place.
Equally impressive: a sequence in which Ip Man squares off against Gong Yutian's daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). As a woman, she is not allowed in the hierarchy of grandmasters, but she shows Ip Man she's his match anyway.
Later in the film, she must face the bitter Ma San in a fierce battle on a train platform amid a driving snow — again at night. As an interminably long train whizzes by, at times inches from the dueling enemies, you can't miss that this is the stuff legends are made of.
The whole thing has a legendary air about it, with its themes of love, loyalty and martial-arts philosophy. Some of the dialogue feels like the martial-arts version of Ben Franklin's wise-old-bird saying: “A well-matched opponent is like a long lost friend.”
Wong Kar Wai is a legend himself, having had five of his films nominated for the Cannes Film Festival's top honor and winning the best-director prize there for “Happy Together” in 1997.