Long term readers of the blog will know two things about me. Firstly that I adore the movies of Wong Kar Wai (two of them would fit every time in the upper echelons of my top ten movies ever), and that this is a film that I have been aching to see for years. Something like 6 years in the making, this one has been in my “films I am looking forward too” posts for the last two years. Yet sometimes such anticipation can only deliver disappointment. Not only that, but there have been a quite a few Ip Man biopics since this one was even conceived. Has it also missed the cinematic boat?
“The Grandmaster” opens with the 40 year old Ip Man (Tony Leung) being selected as the southern china representative in a battle for succession when the Northern based Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang) announces his retirement. Although he has already nominated the ruthless Ma San (Zhang Jin) in the north, he has decided that the south need their own master. Ip Man shows his mettle in a number of small skirmishes, but the fight with Gong Yutian turns out to be more a philosophical discussion which Ip Man wins. Gong Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) takes umbrage at this loss of family honour, and challenges Ip Man to a real battle, which she wins. Gong Er wins, but a connection is made between the two, that follows the pair over the next few years. Everything changes though during the onset od the second Sino-Japanese war, during which Ip Man suffers great hardship and loss, whilst Ma San kills Gong Yutian. Gong Er then has a new focus for her revenge. Ip Man ends up in Hong Kong, amongst a whole group of martial arts teachers and schools, along with another, somewhat more violent master called The Razor (Chang Chen). The film continues to look at the changes between these characters and the various martial arts they represent.
Did we need another Ip Man biopic? Even though this one was conceived before all the others, you get the feeling that the motives of the film changed over the extended creative process. Indeed, the de-pluralisation of the title maybe gives a clue as to what the original intentions may have been. Because frankly, this is a film in which you would learn very little about the man himself. It starts with him hitting 40, and for vast swathes of the running time it is far more interested in the story of Gong Er. The general themes of the film are far more interested with the big ideas around martial arts, and the concepts of how such knowledge is handed down, or even lost. Actual people themselves are barely realised.
Whilst taking a mostly chronologically linear approach (albeit with one flashback), the movie is constructed very strangely. In “In The Mood For Love” the Director would fade in and out, giving us little moments in a longer affair. Here he nearly does the same, filling in the gaps with title cards. The problem is, the moments we don’t see are possibly the most interesting, and therefore the film fails to really tell us about the characters at all. Worse still is how key characters are either forgotten about, such as Ip’s wife (Song Hye-kyo, although this might have been because the actress could not give up the time to be constantly ready for filming), or worse still, they are so underwritten as to be hard to explain, which is what happens to Razor. The whole feel felt like a series of moments from a film trailer (albeit a very long one), that was desperately searching for a film to represent. I’m a big fan of the Director, and I am fully aware of his style, but the lack of cohesive story here, and the complete lack of showing key events (such as two of Ip’s Children dying) feels totally wrong. Yes it is pretentious, but the fundamental issues of the movie run much deeper than this.
Performances? Well on the plus side, Zhang Ziyi is utterly luminous and steals the show. This is useful as Tony Leung does nothing more than smile wryly and look charming. I honestly think this is one of Asia’s finest actors, and to see him phoning the performances in is a little frustrating. Everyone else is perfectly fine, but they really don’t have an awful lot to do.
The film is beautifully shot though. Every scene is so carefully designed and filmed. The fight scenes or quite wonderfully realised, with Ip Man and Gong Er’s fight being infused with sexuality and Gong Er and Ma San putting on another great show at a Train Station. But once again, this is all window dressing for a shop that has very little going on.
So for me, this has to go down as a very mild recommendation indeed, mostly because there is actually lots to enjoy here if viewed as a collection of moments. In fact, I am sure that tere will be plenty of people who will totally love it, and even call it a masterpiece. However, as it has such a pedigree, as so much effort was obviously put into it, I simply can’t praise it as it lacks what actually makes something a film. It lacks cohesion, focus and heart. It ends up being neither a good Ip Man film, not one of the Directors best. Disappointing.