Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Review: The Grandmaster

Here's how little I knew about Ip Man going into The Grandmaster, the latest of many biopics about him: when I saw the Netflix Instant cover art for the film Ip Man, with the title in all caps, I guessed that it was a wry mockumentary about a superhero charged with enforcing copyrights by going after internet pirates around the world.

Of course, Ip Man was in fact a legendary Chinese martial artist (and Bruce Lee's teacher). And as The Grandmaster unfolded, I began to feel that it may be precisely the worst way to start learning about Ip Man. Partly, this is because the movie really should have been called The Grandmaster's Girlfriend.

Tony Leung (whom you might remember from Hero or Infernal Affairs) plays Ip, opposite his rival/love interest Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, who's also in a lot of these kinds of movies). The story begins with Ip's discovery by a previous grandmaster (Gong Er's father), then proceeds through the Japanese occupation. Ip is separated from his family (under circumstances left unclear) and winds up in Hong Kong, bringing his talent and his moves to a diverse array of students. But little time is spent on that—a long, late sequence follows Gong Er's exploits in the north, culminating in a cool train station showdown and a less cool opium addiction.

This is a movie for the real martial arts lovers—those folks who geek out just as intensely at lengthy and poetic ruminations about the nature of martial arts as they do at well-staged, well-shot fights (of which The Grandmaster boasts several, though they're unevenly distributed). The strictness of Chinese culture comes through quite strongly, and the visual choices serve to both reinforce and juxtapose it in ways I found pleasing. The opening fight in the rain sets up a pattern of slow-mo and filter tricks that must have made for an elaborate production process, and yet they're used with enough balance that I mostly found them entrancing rather than irritating. Fans of set design will be pretty much in heaven, too.

Yet, despite its luxuriant mid-20th-century visual palette, the film concerns itself hardly at all with Chinese history, and surprisingly little with the inner workings of its title character. Indeed, The Grandmaster feels to me a little like what Lincoln would feel like to someone unfamiliar with American history. Such a person would want to know a lot more about (for example) how such an odd fellow came to be president, why he got shot, and what the denouement of the Civil War was. Likewise, while Tony Leung's performance did not attain the supreme heights of Daniel Day-Lewis's as Lincoln, The Grandmaster has inspired me enough to probably check out one of the other Ip Man movies in the near future.

Star Score: 3 out of 5

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