Mention the name of Bruce Lee to any aficionado of martial arts movies and they will immediately know who you are talking about. Ask them the name of the man who taught Wing Chun kung fu to the late actor/martial artist and some may know the name Ip Man. The Grandmaster is the story of Ip Man’s rise to prominence in the martial arts community. Written and directed by Wong Kar-wai, whose Happy Together won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, The Grandmaster focuses on Ip Man’s life in Foshan, China during the 1930s and how he eventually migrates to Hong Kong where he first meets the young Bruce Lee.
Ip Man, portrayed by Tony Leung, is a rising star in China’s southern martial arts community. The nation is divided into two regions in terms of these arts, with the northern styles having the man considered to be the nation’s “grandmaster” as their leader. This man, “Gong Yutian” (Wang Qingxiang) has named a successor in “Ma San” (Zhang Jin), but wants to challenge the best of the South in an effort at uniting the two factions. After some debate, the more renowned masters of the southern styles put Ip Man forward to represent them.
The contest turns out to be one of wit and thought rather than physical combat and Gong Yutian declares Ip Man to be the winner. But after he leaves, his daughter “Gong Er” (Zhang Ziyi) challenges Ip Man to try to regain the family’s honor. She wins their contest and its clear there is a mutual attraction between the two. Never mind that Ip Man is married and has children.
The two stay in touch through letters. Ip Man’s plans for the future must be put on hold when the Japanese invade. Eventually the war ends and he journeys on alone to Hong Kong, to set up a school and fend for his family. He meets up with Gong Er there, and wishes to pursue a relationship but she will have none of it. She vowed to never marry, have kids or teach in order to carry out vengeance on Ma San who commits several heinous acts and will not break those vows to be with Ip Man.
This is not a wu xia film but has some of the elements of this genre. There is plenty of fighting, a definite hero, and much of the philosophy of the martial arts preset. Leung gives a solid turn as the title character while Ziyi shines as his unrequited love. The action is simply stellar, thanks to the presence of Yuen Woo-ping as the overall fight sequence coordinator. His presence on-screen in a small role is just a bonus to his fans.
It is obvious that Leung and writer/director Wong Kar-wai have collaborated before. In fact, they have done seven films together now and their synergy is just one of the reasons The Grandmaster is an enjoyable watch.
The version showing in the U.S. runs only 108 minutes as opposed to the 130 minute version shown in China or the 123 minute version screened at the Berlin Film Festival. Hopefully someday those of us in the U.S. can view the extended cut.