Do we really need another movie about Ip Man? This is the fourth in five years. What part of this man’s life haven’t we seen already? It easy to be cynical about the overabundance of films about one guy. It’s even easier when Donnie Yen has all but claimed ownership of the role with the popularity of his films. It’s a little less easy when you see the credits for “The Grandmaster.” With Director Wong Kar- Wai, Choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, and Actors Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi, there’s not much left to be cynical about. In fact, there seems to be plenty of reason to get rather irrationally excited.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way; this film is absolutely beautiful. Sets and costumes are absurdly detailed, bordering on sensory overload, and colors are rich and sharp. Given that films like “In the Mood for Love” and “2046” are in Kar-Wai’s filmography, anything less than what’s seen here would’ve been a disappointment. Then we have the choreography by Yuen Woo- Ping (Drunken Master, Fist of Legend, The Matrix, Kung Fu Hustle). It’s phenomenal (duh) and the cinematography only makes it better. It’s a unique take on filming martial arts and, in such a crowded market, that’s really saying something.
Tony Leung doesn’t stake an RDJesque claim to the role of Ip Man. He’s great, but there’s something missing that keeps a real emotional attachment from forming. That “something” may be the thirty minutes that were cut out for the U.S. release. If Leung wasn’t so charismatic, it could’ve been a greater detriment to the film. Zhang Ziyi mostly dodges that pitfall as the vengeful Gong Er. This might be the best performance of her career, which will probably only be true until her next film comes out. She’s been on a roll lately and there is no sign of her slowing down.
It is said that “trailers lie.” They lie about a lot of things. They lie about story and tone. They set people up for disappointment, selling a movie that never really existed. “The Grandmaster” is just one victim of this. It is not a movie (solely) about Ip Man, nor is it all-out martial arts extravaganza. It’s not short on fights, but it is definitely an art film. Just know that Ip Man’s story only covers half of the movie and that it moves more slowly than the trailers suggest.
There’s something to be said for the quality of a film that can withstand one fifth of its running time being cut. It flinches, to be sure. The story is muddled and may not be easy to follow for those who aren’t up on their martial arts history. Still, Wong Kar-Wai has presented it as only he can. It may not really be an Ip Man film, but “The Grandmaster” does the best job so far of showing us exactly why he is so important.