September 4, 2013

Movie Review: The Grandmaster (2013)

It sure feels like a lot of movies have been made about Ip Man lately. I am used to martial arts films about Wong Fei Hung. In any case, The Grandmaster from auteur Wong Kar Wai is the latest, and likely most anticipated as it has been in and around production for the better part of the decade. In the meantime, it was beaten to theaters by a pair of Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip pairings covering the life of the man who famously became Bruce Lee's teacher. This latest feature is also the most traditionally arty and is quite beautiful and poetic.

I am a big fan of Ip Man, which was the first film to feature Donnie Yen as the Wing Chun master. That movie is a great one for action with some awesome fight sequences. Now, it would certainly be a mistake too expect anything like that from The Grandmaster. If you have ever seen a Wong Kar Wai film, like Chunking Express or 2046, you know to expect something with a bit more of a surreal, introspective bend.

You also likely know that I have not been the biggest proponent of biopics and movies based on true events/stories/people. Still, there is always room for someone who tries to do such a thing in a non traditional fashion. This movie certainly qualifies as that, and is decidedly un-Hollywood to boot. The Grandmaster does not boast a straightforward narrative, it skirts around some of the bigger events of the time and the resulting movie is more contemplative, poetic, and tragic.

The movie follows Ip Man(Tony Leung) picking up his story as a grown man, married to a doting wife and with young children. It was prior to the Japanese invasion before World War II. The Grandmaster of the Northern schools, Gong Yutian, challenges he South to a battle. Ip Man steps up and Gong leaves satisfied, but losing. His daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), is not happy and returns to have her own duel.

I don't really want to say much, which is not hard as I am not sure exactly what to say. The movie is very episodic in nature. There is the sequence with the Gong family, the Japanese invasion, the occupation, Ip Man's departure to Hong Kong. There are also sequences focusing on Gong Er, featuring a wonderful fight with Ma Shan, Gong Yutian's successor and Japanese collaborator.

At this point, you probably do not know what I am talking about. I will say that the movie is beautiful to watch. Now, the movement, or lack thereof, may not hold as much meaning as in prior films, but it didn't matter to me. There is a grace to the look and feel, something reverential, something that goes below the surface. Combined with the music by Shigeru Umebayashi and you have a ,live that looks and feels special.

The acting is very good. Granted, a lot of the acting involves holding a pose or a stare for a lengthy period of time. I is no as eh as one may think, to be able to do that and still be interesting. Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi both hold their end of the bargain. Perhaps a little more in the direction of Leung, considering the movie is ostensibly about his character, he often takes on the role of sideline chronicler. Leung carries a lot of emotion on is face, pride, power, sadness all at once.

Ip Man is an interesting figure. I do not know anything about him aside from what I have seen in the movies. He comes across as someone who intentionally cuts himself off from parts of himself for the sake of the martial arts. He is someone who completely believes in the power of Wing Chun, sometimes at the expense of his personal life. He is introspective and spiritual and, based on what little I know about Bruce Lee, seems to have had a big influence on his most famous student.

The Grandmaster is an excellent film, benefiting from the collaboration of a great filmmaker in Wong Kar Wai, a legendary fight choreographer on Yuen Wo Ping, along with great cinematography, acting, and music. This is a movie hat benefits from being seen on the big screen.

It is my understanding that the cut released in Hong Kong is longer and that the initial cut was four hours long. I can only wonder what that material adds to what I think is already a great film.

Highly Recommended.

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