Instead, “The Grandmaster” lacks focus or drive as co-writer and director Wong Kar-wai flails among the elements of Ip Man’s life for something to hold onto and comes up with little except that late in life he taught Bruce Lee.
This is too bad considering all he lived through. Growing up the son of a wealthy civil servant during the troubled “opening of China” he watches the life he’d known disappear in the fires of World War II and the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and the resultant rise of Mao Tse Tung. In between, and occasionally for an actual discernible reason, people wail on each other stylishly.
Neither action film nor traditional drama, “Grandmaster” is Kar-wai’s attempt to encompass not so much the events of Ip Man’s life as the feeling of having actually carried them out. It’s an interesting conceit and one which seems particularly suited to Kar-wai’s talents as a director, especially in the film’s ethereal action sequences. On the surface they seem like classic bits of Hong Kong wire-fu from master choreographer Yuen Woo Ping, but Kar-wai seems only tangentially interested in the blows and blocks. Instead, he treats the set pieces more like the poetry they’re often described as, masterfully edited by long-time collaborator William Chang, who has given up fast-paced jump cutting for a slower, more cerebral pace. Almost every aspect of Ip Man’s life is treated this way, from his stoic observations of China’s transformation to the handful of genuine relationships “The Grandmaster” bothers to engage in.
The problem is that Ip Man, by his own admission, wants nothing more than to practice kung fu, which presents us with a film that wants nothing, either. He’s presented as a man of great wisdom and learninga requirement for his kung fu mastery which requires skill in philosophy as much as in punchingwhich means he tends to stand around and talk obliquely (when he talks at all). That’s a not a lot to hang your hat onto and even an actor as talented as Tony Leung can’t create in a vacuum, though he gives it his all. Kar-wai, and co-writers Zou Jingzhi and Xu Haofeng, approach Ip Man with such distance it’s impossible to empathize with him.
The filmmakers’ attempt to get around that by branching out to the struggle for who will control the legacy of kung fu; a struggle so central (in Kar-wai’s telling) to China’s national identity, and which Ip Man himself seems intended to represent, that he can’t be bothered to partake in most of it. Though the retirement of kung fu’s great master Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) creates a split in Northern kung fu, a split Ip Man is chosen to heal; it is Yutian’s daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) who both takes up the fight ad engages Ip Man’s heart. It is in “The Grandmaster’s” occasional asides to see how her life is developing that film becomes genuinely engaging. This wouldn’t be a problem if it was called “Gong Er.”
The lack of narrative drive from Ip Man’s own life forces Kar-wai to leave his hero behind to focus on the people actually fighting the good fight, but without bothering to define or in any way make us care for them slowly drains the life out of “The Grandmaster.” In and of themselves the excursions to the frozen North are captivating. Ziyi’s confrontation with her father’s arrogant successor (Zhang Jin) on a train platform hints at the film “The Grandmaster” could have been but isn’tbeautiful, ineffable, mournful. Try as he might, Kar-wai can’t or won’t bring the same kind of life to Ip Man himself, even when hinting at the unrequited love between Gong Er and the married Ip Man. Instead, he must remain unchanged and unchanging, a living symbol for the China that disappeared with the war.
That might not entirely be Kar-wai’s fault as the US cut of “The Grandmaster” has had 22 minutes removed from it, leaving fight scenes intact for the action aficionados but without the connective tissue for the story that would make them matter. Instead we must satisfy ourselves with Ip Man observing the transformation of China through the 20th Century as he is forced by time and tide to take up teaching kung fu for a living, in the process accomplishing the one thing that has kept him in our memory introducing Bruce Lee to kung fu. As denouement’s go it’s not much of one, though perhaps strangely fitting for this film of Ip Man’s life which from the start seems more interested in the people around the man than the man himself.
A rare miss from a master filmmaker, “The Grandmaster” leaves audiences with the same regret which surrounds and dims Ip Man for so many of his years; the tantalizing sadness of “what might have been.”