Let me first start off by saying that all kung fu movies are niche films. So if you can’t or won’t read subtitles, then stop reading this review now, because this movie isn’t for you. For those who don’t mind foreign films then, for your reading pleasure, here is my review of Wong Kar-wai’s martial arts film The Grandmaster.
The film chronicles the life of Ip Man (the man famously known for training THE Bruce Lee) in 1930s Foshan, China. Ip Man is the fighter of fighters. He rarely gets challenged or even hit in a fight whether it’s against one man or an army. He is played sturdily by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who affectively illustrates both Ip Man’s humble and tenacious nature. The movie spans nearly twenty years of Ip’s life, examining his highs and lows and occasionally delving into the life of his friend Gong Er, the only person in the entire movie who remotely challenges him. She is played by familiar face Zhang Ziyi (aka the villainess from Rush Hour 2).
I have to admit that I couldn’t help but be biased while watching this film, because I’ve already seen two films about Ip Man (Wilson Yip’s Ip Man and Ip Man 2, both on Netflix). Both of those films were outstanding and at times The Grandmaster felt like an overly poetic remake. Some cinematography is downright stunning, specifically one of the final scenes where Ziyi’s Gong Er reminisces on learning martial arts from her father in the snow. Unfortunately, the majority of the film feel’s overdone and too artistic for its own good. Too many times we are detracted from excellent fight choreography with unnecessary close-ups and excessive slow motion. The opening fight scene between Ip and an army of men would’ve been jaw dropping if the audience could effectively see through the ridiculous downpour of rain.
From a narrative standpoint, the movie also struggles. In two hours, the story covers twenty years of Ip’s life but at no point is there a sense of plot or direction. There is no real antagonist (as there is in Wilson Yip’s versions) and the film coasts through Ip’s most challenging times, during the 1937 Japanese Invasion of China, with montages and title cards. In the end, we’re left highly underwhelmed and left with a lack of understanding for both the movie and its primary character. It isn’t bad at all. It’s probably pretty good if you go in with no familiarity with the story, but in my humble opinion, you’d be better served watching Wilson Yip’s films instead.
FINAL GRADE: C