Reviewed By

Christopher Armstead
It looks like it's Ip Man all the time in Chinese cinema these days, with this movie 'The Grandmaster' being, I believe, the fifth movie based on the life of the legendary master of the art of Wing Chun.  But hold on one minute, this isn't just any old Ip Man movie, this is celebrated director Kar Wai Wong giving us Ip Man.  What does this mean?  This basically means that you're going get a lot of very pretty pictures, immersed in a bunch of esoteric stuff which may or may not having any meaning to you whatsoever.  Thus if you are a fan of the works of Kar Wai Wong, of which there are many, most of the time coming to his defense, you will get a lot out of the movie.  If you are not a fan… of which there are more… you're probably going to call it B.S.  For disclosures sake, I'm not that big a fan.

What can Kar Wai Wong do that very few people can argue with?  Fan or no fan?  The man shoots a pretty picture.   Opening scene, Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is in a rain storm beating up hordes of people.  I'm not sure why.  But it sure is beautiful to look at.

From there, Ip narrates this tale, at least in part, telling us of his charmed life, his beautiful wife, and of the stress and tension in the small town that he lives in.  Apparently there is trouble between the northern and the southern regions… and I must admit that the politics of what was presented here was murky at best, at least for me… but an old man (Wang Qingxiang) is stepping down from his post as what I assume is King Kung Fu Master, passing  down the torch of the house of Gong to his top assistant Ma San (Jin Zhang).  Just in case anyone doubts that Ma San is worthy of this title, he beats the living snot out of a bunch of folks, which admittedly doesn't make old man Gong very happy.

The people of the south need a hero, and while Ip Man is beneath most of them in status, by his own admission, he is the one chosen because he kicks ass the best.  Now this leads to another shift in the film in old man Gong's daughter Gong Er (Zyi Zhang) who is also a master of the
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family art, known as 64 hands, and she challenges Ip to a fight of sorts.  It's a little confusing, and Ip loses… kind of… but a byproduct of this fight is a healthy respect, maybe even a little love between these two.  A love which cannot be.

Then the Japanese invade.  This was not good for China and most lost everything, including Ip who's once charmed life is now in shambles, having lost two children in the war, followed by him relocating in Hong Kong and leaving behind a wife he will never see again.  This section also introduces to us another character in The Razor (Chen Chang), a rebel fighting for the Chinese resistance.  I don't know exactly what to tell you about this particular character or even why he's in the movie, outside of the fact that the character has a fight sequence that is simply phenomenal and the producers chose not to cut it.  The Razor does interact with Gong Er on a train as she helped hide him from the Japanese invaders looking for him, but that would be it for that relationship and at no time will the Razor or Ip interact with each other, so I'm not sure what purpose the Razor actually serves in this movie, and truth be told, he probably needed to be cut from the movie.

The movie follows Ip's life in Hong Kong for a bit, goes back in time, back to the mainland where Gong Er challenges Ma San for something he did to old man Gong, jumps ahead again where Gong Er and Ip Man talk about some stuff, then it just kinds of ends.

Let it be said that another thing this director did quite well in this movie is photographing his star, Zhang Ziyi.  The woman is already blessed with a very simple, uncomplicated beauty, and Wong takes exacting care to film a beautiful woman in a way that makes her even more beautiful.  Amazing.  But of course, while looking at a pretty woman is a nice thing, this isn't why we watch movies.  We watch to be entertained, enthralled, amazed, inspired, humored… and what if I was to tell you that 'The Grandmaster' accomplished most of those things, but yet I still didn't care for the movie all that much?  That doesn't even seem possible, but yet that's where we are.

Yes, 'The Grandmaster' is wonderful to look at, the Woo-ping Yuen choreographed action sequences are second to none, the performances from Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang, and most everyone supporting them are rock solid… but what was this movie trying to tell me?  Even at well over two hours long, the narrative was sketchy at best, downright haphazard at worst.  There doesn't seem to be a central focus for the story or for the characters, the timeline is tampered with for reasons that are beyond my simple comprehension abilities, and we've already discussed the inclusion of certain characters and plot points which either needed to be completely edited out or better still, edited up, so that they integrated themselves better into the story.

In a word, I would call 'The Grandmaster' a mess.  It's an amazing mess, a mesmerizing mess, a spectacular mess, but a mess nonetheless.  Rumor has it that Wong originally had a four hour rough cut before the scissors got taken to his movie, and while I have no real desire to watch a four hour movie… I'm pretty convinced that somewhere within those original four hours is great film dying to claw its way out.
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