Ip Man was a martial artist, born in the Chinese city of Foshan in 1893 before ultimately moving to Hong Kong and becoming a master teacher of the wing chun school of kung fu. His most famous student was action film star Bruce Lee. In recent years Ip has become the centre of his own miniature genre of Hong Kong action film. In 2008 simultaneous biographical pictures were announced, each based on Ip’s life. Wilson Yip’s Ip Man, which starred Donnie Yen, was quickly produced and released into cinemas that December. Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, on the other hand, struggled through a tortured pre-production, delays caused by its lead actor breaking his arm during training, a lengthy shoot and an even lengthier editing process. It was finally released to Chinese cinemas in January 2013 – more than four years after Wong had started making it. In the intervening time Yip and Yen had made Ip Man 2, and Herman Yau had directed an unofficial prequel titled Ip Man: The Legend is Born. Ip Man had even appeared as a supporting character in the television drama The Legend of Bruce Lee. As The Grandmaster was released, another TV series was halfway finished titled Ip Man and Herman Yau was already producing the other unofficial book-end to Yip and Yen’s films: Ip Man: The Final Fight.
Good things, as they say, come to those who wait, since while The Grandmaster was delayed by four years the final production is an astonishingly beautiful and effective film. As a biographical film it actually fails miserably, since it almost consigns Ip – played here by noted actor Tony Yeung Chiu-Wai – to the sidelines of his own film. Instead it uses Ip Man as a viewpoint from which to explore the end of the traditional Chinese martial arts community, the Japanese occupation of China, and a violent feud between Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) – the daughter of a northern martial arts grand master – and Ma San (Zhang Jin) – the pupil who has co-opted her father’s legacy and teachings.
One can almost take The Grandmaster as a love letter to martial arts. Its fight sequences are shot and edited with such a distinctive flair and an elegant, baroque quality that they are likely unmatched on their own terms in Chinese-language cinema. The first fight, which opens the movie, sees Ip take down an entire crowd of assailants in a rain-soaked back street. The action is frantic, aggressive and visually quite difficult to follow, with Wong clearly focusing on Ip’s sheer speed and power in the face of multiple combatants. Later sequences take a radically different route, focusing on slow motion, shifts from motion to stillness, and a striking focus on individual aspects of martial arts technique. One fight seems to dwell excessively on the movements of the fighters’ feet. Another focuses on the motions of their hands. One particularly beautiful sequence sees Ip and Gong trade blows in such a lyrical and seductive fashion that it works as one of the best romance scenes I have ever seen.
Elsewhere the film takes a dark, warmly lit aesthetic, as Wong tracks Ip’s life over a number of decades from his being appointed to represent the southern schools of martial arts against a northern challenger to his setting up his own school in Hong Kong in the 1950s. Tony Leung delivers a wonderfully subtle and restrained performance as Ip, trusting the screenplay and the photography to do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting – and in doing so providing Ip with a deep sense of self-assurance and dignity. The slow burn romance between Leung and Zhang’s characters is tremendous. They can never be together, since he is already married and she is consumed by her quest for revenge against Ma San, but that longing permeates every interaction they share from its playful beginnings to the film’s melancholic conclusion.
If one was to be harshly honest about The Grandmaster, they could make the claim that the entire film is essentially composed of romantic longing and luxurious martial arts fights. That would be a true assessment, but such an assessment would fail to capture just how languidly composed and sensually staged that longing and those fights appear on the screen. Wong Kar-wai is an apparent master of missing the expected beats and structures of his chosen genres – check out Ashes of Time for his deliberately idiosyncratic take on the ‘wuxia’ martial action genre – but he always lands somewhere jaw-droppingly beautiful and incomparably emotional. He is a truly unique filmmaker, and The Grandmaster shows him near the very height of his immense talents.