I was ready to be impressed by this movie. Sadly, I was not impressed.
Wong Kar Wai takes on the story of Ip Man in The Grandmaster, with his favourite muse Tony Leung in the title role. It tells the story of… well, I’m not sure what it’s all about, really. It is ostensibly about Ip Man becoming and being the Grandmaster. But it’s also about Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the Grandmaster before Ip Man. The stories are linked and yet not linked, and could probably have been split into two different movies for all I cared in the end.
The trailers played up the martial arts angle (as well they should, given that Ip Man is famous for being the teacher of Bruce Lee) but in the end, the fight sequences didn’t amount to very much. Oh, there were fight sequences, and they were all beautifully shot. But they seemed to lack a real purpose and drive, and the energy that makes a fight sequence interesting to watch. Perhaps Wong intended to focus more on the details, but there came a point where I felt like I was appreciating water droplets in slow motion and the gorgeous sets more than I was appreciating the actual fight choreography and narrative.
An even bigger problem is the disjointed feeling of the whole story. Almost half of the movie seems to belong to Gong Er, with very little connection to Ip Man. In fact, Gong Er’s story is more cohesive than Ip Man’s. Ip Man wins a contest held by Gong Er’s father and essentially becomes the Grandmaster of the south. But after that, his part of the story starts to wander. Gong Er challenges him (and wins! Yay, girl power!), the Japanese invade China and Ip Man is forced to leave his wealthy life behind and start over in Hong Kong. Ip Man endures some hardship in Hong Kong but in the end starts his own small martial arts school. The end. Huh?
On the other hand, Gong Er has a much stronger narrative – one nearly completely removed from Ip Man. She duels Ip Man to prove the superiority of her family’s kungfu style, and after the duel they maintain a friendship through letters. But more importantly, her father dies after a fight with his ex-protege and she vows to never marry or teach and devotes herself to avenging her father’s death. Not a happy story, but at least there is a clearer narrative with a motivation, unlike Ip Man’s story, which turns aimless after he is named Gong Yutian’s heir in the south.
Wasted characters are another issue with The Grandmaster. Ip Man’s wife, who appears at the beginning, hardly ever shows up again in the second half of the movie. This is utterly bizarre as it is implied at the start that his wife is a very important part of his life. That’s all well and good, but then why have her fade away to nearly complete invisibility later? The 2008 Ip Man film portrayed the husband-wife relationship far better. In this case, they might as well not have introduced her at all. I can’t see that it would have made a difference.
There was also a character played by Chang Chen who appears in a few segments that appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with any other part of the story. (Or maybe it does and I completely missed the connection somehow.) He has a run-in with Gong Er once and that’s about it. I was completely confused by the existence of those segments and couldn’t figure out who on earth the character was and what part he was supposed to be playing in the overall story.
I gather that Wong was probably aiming for a more philosophical angle on martial arts in this film, and possibly also a subtle commentary on how people like Ip Man had to deal with the changing times and modernisation. I wouldn’t have had a huge problem with that if the narrative had been more coherent, instead of splitting into three parts and going to and fro between them when there was no strong connection between them all. Whilst there is at least some sort of link between Ip Man and Gong Er, Chang Chen’s character, Yixiantian, is totally superfluous. Apparently the English title changed from The Grandmasters to The Grandmaster, which perhaps hints at indecision as to the real focus of the film. Is it a film about Ip Man? Or is it a film about Ip Man and other kungfu experts living in that time (i.e. Gong Er and Yixiantian)? The confusion shows in the movie.
However, it must be said that the film is a visual feast for the eyes. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and production designer William Chang (a constant presence in Wong’s films) do a marvellous job of making things look beautiful. There is a sort of grandiose darkness to the overall look of the film. It’s a palette of bronze and gold, brown and black, with all other colours being subdued. When the Japanese invade, the splashes of red introduced in their flags is subconscious jarring note – most appropriate as a representation of how that invasion shook things up. And you’ll probably hardly ever see a brothel and its prostitutes look as opulent as the ones in this film do. haha
The music in the film was rather nice too. It was a mixture of period songs – popular tunes from the 1940s/50s era – and sweeping operatic themes with plenty of sad, melancholic strings and dramatic thrumming, thumping bass sounds. (And I do have a soft spot for the retro music, like 玫瑰玫瑰我愛你 (the original Mandarin version of “Rose, Rose, I Love You”).
Wong Kar Wai should stick to his character dramas. That’s his strength. The Grandmaster was a good effort but ultimately disappointed. Chang Chen was horribly wasted, and I think Tony Leung was rather underutilised as well. On an emotional level, the film is very much a Wong Kar Wai film – rather melancholic, with characters on lonely paths, and a generally sombre atmosphere. But yeah, pity about the disjointed narrative which leaves one caring next to nothing about anyone but Gong Er.
The Grandmaster gets ★★½ from me. (An extra half a star for being pretty to look at and for having nice music.)