Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Grandmaster (2013) ***

PG-13, 130 min.
Director: Kar Wai Wong
Writers: Kar Wai Wong, Jingzhi Zou, Haofeng Xu
Starring: Tony Chui Wai Leong, Ziyi Zhang, Qingxiang Wang, Jin Zhang, Hye-kyo Song

“The Grandmaster” tells the true-life tale of Ip Man, a master martial artist who came out of the final era of feudal China from a Southern clan. He held a challenge against a Northern successor to become the country’s Grandmaster when World War II got in the way. The invasion of China by Japan led to the end of the old Empire and the end of the martial arts clans. Ip Man continued to practice and teach martial arts in the new age. He most famous disciple was Bruce Lee.

That synopsis of Ip Man’s life may not be entirely accurate, but then I don’t think director Wong Kar Wai’s intentions are for historical accuracy. A director of romance epics, Wong Kar Wai merges the genres of romance and martial arts here to give more of an impressionistic take on Ip Man’s life, with great emphasis on the opposing martial arts styles heralded by each clan leader. Ip Man meets his match in the Grandmaster’s daughter Gong Er. Although Ip Man already has a family, their feelings for each other are expressed in battle. Ip Man would lose his family in the war and meet Gong Er again later in life, after she has already taken revenge on her father’s successor for tarnishing her family’s legacy.

I’m not so sure Wong Kar Wai’s slow romantic style meshes all too well with the martial arts genre. The first half of the film has little story to it, and most sequences seem designed merely to please fans of martial arts movies. Only after the war intervenes in Ip Man’s plans for succession does the film really take any sort of narrative shape. It is just as beautiful as any of Wong Kar Wai’s work and the fight sequences are well choreographed and exciting, but it doesn’t have the weight a real life story of this stature might if it were approached more traditionally.

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