These are heady days for Ip Man — not bad for a guy who died more than 40 years ago. Over the past several years, the celebrated kung fu teacher whose students included Bruce Lee has been in the midst of a sort of revival with his exploits having been fictionalized in a handful of Hong Kong movies. The Grandmaster is the latest to pay homage to the legendary martial artist, but the real artist on display here is director Wong Kar-wai.
Screening Tuesday evening at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, this Chinese-language export is a biopic in the best old-school sense, replete with sweeping vistas, battles over honor, simmering loves and the like.
The tale begins in China of the mid-1930s. The Yangtze River is a divide between the country’s northern and southern kung fu styles. The aging northern master, Gung Yutian (Qingxiang Wang, Red Cliff), travels to the southern city of Foshan to check out “the new hope of the south,” a martial artist known as Ip Man. The older man is duly impressed when he sees Ip (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Lust, Caution), a devotee of the Wing Chun school of martial arts, smash a throng of rivals as if they were gnats — all without losing the fedora he’s wearing.
Gung concedes that Ip Man is the future of martial arts, but Gung’s daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), is less eager to compromise her family’s honor. She challenges the unflappable Ip Man to another show of skills; Gong Er, no slouch in kung fu, proves to be a formidable foe. But their would-be enmity is no match for the sexual tension between them, a matter complicated by Ip Man’s wife and children.
The martial arts action is exceptional. Yuen Woo-ping, a giant of Hong Kong cinema, choreographs the fight scenes, and the battles are as brilliantly staged and edited as one could hope for. But this isn’t a typical kung fu actioner. The Grandmaster is more concerned with visual luxuriance.
Wong — the great filmmaker behind Happy Together, In the Mood for Love and 2046 — presents a vivid, dreamlike world that can be breathtakingly beautiful. He is ably served by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, whose work here deservedly earned an Oscar nomination. A fight in a busy train station toward the film’s end, a mosaic of light and texture, is worth the price of admission alone.
The movie’s sumptuous style isn’t quite matched by the screenplay.The Grandmaster inexplicably pays short shrift to some aspects of
Ip Man’s life while maybe overdoing the aphorism-heavy dialogue (“No
arrow can return to its bow,” “A tiger never quits a mountain,” etc.).
But the sheer audaciousness of it is undeniably entertaining.