Throwing his crisp white fedora into a crowded ring of Ip Man biopics, director Wong Kar Wai looks to make the definitive “Man” epic with The Grandmaster. Renowned in his own right when it comes to cinematic aesthetics, Kar Wai takes to the challenge with two hands and one leg tied behind his back. “The legend of the man who trained Bruce Lee,” has become a marketing tagline that’s as familiar as it is cumbersome, with Wilson Yip’s 2008 action-drama Ip Man having launched a full-blown wave of Ip-mania that’s included several other films and TV series in China. Wai’s flair for the visual form alone makes his take more than a match physically for the horde of other Ip pics, but thanks to meddlesome studio interference, The Grandmaster comes away with more than its fair share of lumps and bruises.
Tony Leung Chui Wai stars as Ip Man, an unsuspecting family man just trying to make a living in 1930s China. Peace is a fleeting thing for anyone during a time of simmering tensions between the country’s divided North and South, especially for a Wing Chun specialist such as Man. Expert martial artists from all schools seek to unite the country under common cause, a Herculean task to be certain, but one made easier by the persuasive teachings of kung fu. And failing philosophical persuasion, the physical teachings of kung fu prove just as important to establishing the law of the land, with Man’s mastery of both skills catching the attention of aging, and heir-seeking Martial Arts Union leader Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang).
Fitting for such a Wild West environment – where laconic men waste days in gaudy brothels- The Grandmaster follows in the footsteps of other Ip films, playing up Man’s life to a mythical status several stories higher than your average tall tale, much to the enjoyment of action and Wuxia film fans. With venerated choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping at his disposal, Kar Wai effectively doubles down on his stock and trade, as their combined talents make for the best looking fight sequences you’re likely to see all year, both in terms of shot composition, and physical orchestration. The film’s opening, rain-drenched street brawl is more like an act of synchronized swimming, making fluid the aftermath of an unstoppable fist crossing paths with a very moveable object, or sternum.
The camera can’t always keep up with the specific motions of combat, but Kar Wai’s attention is squarely focused on the impact of bodies on a collision course. The unpredictable editing in some sequences will see combatants swap places around their makeshift arenas, as if we’ve skipped a beat or two. For the sake of maintaining the emotional drive of the physical displays, Kar Wai’s minor sins against continuity are perfectly forgivable, as the technicals of the physical displays become less important as they drag on, and the operatic spectacle reaches a fever pitch.
Less defensible is the absence of whole scenes that are missing from the film. A full 22 minutes of the original reel was lost to distributor scalpels in the process of bringing The Grandmaster overseas. The 108 minutes that did survive the winnowing impulses of the Weinstein Company make for a lumpy, disjointed pseudo-biopic, one that loses interest in its subject halfway through. Charting Man’s life well past the end of World War II, the technological and cultural shifts that see kung fu slip into irrelevancy provide an appropriately elegiac throughline for the character to follow, but the film’s choppy structure lacks purpose, resulting in a series of vignettes that could be best described as “The Labours of Ip Man.” Here’s five minutes of Ip Man struggling to survive in Japan occupied Foshan. Now, here’s a scene of him sharing a beautifully shot smoke with a Tai Chi master. Oh, and here’s a little anecdote about Ip sparring with a deadly slicer, one who’s not Harvey Weinstein.
The sporadic plotting does nothing to dull the poetry of the images, but narrative aimlessness leaves the lion’s share of Chui Wai’s performance up to his hands and feet, as the characterization of Man never reaches for anything beyond respectful reverence. The dichotomy of violence and peace that constitutes the philosophy of Ip Man and his fellow martial artists quickly gets drowned out in a sea of idiomatic platitudes, and characters quoting one another for dramatic emphasis. Again, it’s entirely likely that the subtlety of Kar Wai’s baby got thrown out with the 22 minutes of bath water the studio decided to dump. Attempts to compensate for the compressed runtime do the film no favors, sadly. Intrusive intertitles either lay out exposition in a shotgun blast, or portray Man’s long-distance romance with Gong Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), with all the passion of a couple teens texting each other.
Surprisingly, it’s that subplot that makes for the film’s strongest continuing thread, one that grows in importance as the narrative flips and skips through time. In this cut, Zhang steals the film out from Chui Wai’s hands; Gong Er’s quest to reclaim her family’s legacy is burdened by her perceived loss in the gender coin flip of birth, adding a layer of complexity to the character that curator’s gloves can’t offer the actual protagonist. Zhang’s porcelain features hide an iron will that has fists to match, and any initial confusion created by her fight at a train platform constituting the film’s action climax will quickly subside, once you realize that it’s her story that’s really grabbing your attention.
That story finds a lovely and wistful conclusion, and feeds right back into Ip’s own, but from there, the rest of the film barely carries itself as anything other than a series of footnotes. The Grandmaster limps towards an unceremonious ending, with the aid of another barrage of intertitles, and confirmation that, yes, Ip Man was the one who trained Bruce Lee. That’s it. For such a mythological and stylized interpretation of Man’s legacy, you’d expect a grander finale; instead, you get a Bruce Lee quote, and an after-credits snippet of Man putting the hurt on a few more stuntmen. Perhaps once the original cut is made available, the story of Ip Man will have its ultimate retelling. Until then, we’ll have to settle for a good-looking impersonator of The Grandmaster that knows all his moves, but is content to mostly just go through the motions.