Wong Kar Wai clearly had epic ambitions for The Grandmaster, his long-awaited film on the influential martial arts master Ip Man, who trained Bruce Lee. The film is beautiful but troubled, achieving in stretches the directors signature dreamy mood but dragged down by narrative confusions.
Wong (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love and many other features) focuses on Ip Mans life roughly from the 1930s to the 50s, and includes his role in helping sort out the rivalries among Northern and Southern Chinese kung fu schools, the effect on his life of the second Sino-Japanese war, and his later experiences teaching martial arts in Hong Kong.
As you would expect from this filmmaker, a master stylist capable of exquisite images, this isnt an ordinary martial arts picture. (Ip Man has been the subject of other films, notably a pair starring Donnie Yen, but they inhabit another universe from Wongs work.) The fight scenes are balletic, and theres a lush, sometimes overripe, air about the whole movie. The otherworldly feeling is enhanced by Ip Mans oracular utterances, thankfully leavened with occasional humor.
The film is at its best when Ip Man (Wong regular Tony Leung Chiu Wai) interacts with a fictional character, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who, as the daughter of an aged martial arts master, cannot inherit his position because of gender. But she is quite adept at the old mans style, as evidenced in a remarkably choreographed fight with Ip and battles fought during a later revenge quest. While the first half of the film is Ips, Gong Er eventually comes to the fore.
This is a Wong film, so there will be a major thread of romantic longing and unrequited love.
The martial arts set pieces are skillful enough to thrill even non-connoisseurs.
Wong has long since proved his ability to create a powerful, hallucinatory atmosphere, and he is working here with two charismatic actors. Its hard to take your eyes off them. But he cant overcome the films choppy feeling. Story strands feel truncated and characters that seem significant suddenly disappear.
In fact, this version released by the Weinstein Company is 22 minutes shorter than what played at Berlinale film festival.
But give The Grandmaster its due even trimmed, it has merits.