Not coming to a theater near me, living in the boondocks, but opening recently in urban theaters is the long-awaited biopic about Ip Man, the Wing Chun master who was Bruce Lee’s Sifu, by illustrious Chinese director Wong Kar Wai renowned in the West for “Chungking Express” (1994) and “In the Mood for Love” (2000).
Walter Addiego‘s review indicates that the version being released currently theatrically suffers from having been shortened by the great minds of Hollywood to suit the preferences of Western demos, but it will still be a must-see movie for hard-core cineastes and martial arts enthusiasts.
Wong… .focuses on Ip Man’s 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 isn’t an ordinary martial arts picture. (Ip Man has been the subject of other films, notably two starring Donnie Yen, but they inhabit another universe from Wong’s work.) The fight scenes are balletic, and there’s a lush, sometimes overripe, air about the whole movie. The otherworldly feeling is enhanced by Ip Man’s 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 her gender. But she is quite adept at the old man’s 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 Ip’s, Gong Er eventually comes to the fore and even eclipses him.
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. The standouts include the long opening scene of nighttime combat in the rain, with Ip Man wearing his signature white fedora; an extended brawl in a stunningly designed brothel; and a remarkable one-on-one in which Gong Er shows her stuff next to a speeding train.
Wong has long since proved his ability to create a powerful, hallucinatory atmosphere, and he is working here with two charismatic actors – it’s hard to take your eyes off them. But he can’t overcome the film’s choppy feeling, which has nothing to do with its fractured chronology. Story strands feel truncated and characters who seem significant suddenly disappear, as if we’re seeing the choice bits of a longer movie.
In fact, the version that played at this year’s Berlinale was 130 minutes; the film being released by the Weinstein Co., and reviewed here, runs 108.
It turns out that, these days, all is not lost for exurbanites like myself. “The Grandmaster” is available from third party dealers via Amazon on DVD, and at derisory prices no less. I’ve already ordered mine.
Hat tip to Emmy Chang.