Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: The Grandmaster

Image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.
"The Grandmaster" is a visually stunning martial arts epic that - in typical Wong Kar Wai fashion - blends genre elements - in this case, kung fu - with a tale of unrequited love.

In the film, Wong regular Tony Leung portrays Ip Man, whom you may know as the man who went on to train Bruce Lee. But the movie legend only makes a brief appearance here as a boy in the finale.

Wong's latest is an historical film set during the golden age of martial arts amid the Republican era following China's last dynasty.

Ip is a master of Wing Chun, a martial art that his opponents will describe as simplistic, consisting of basically three moves - and yet, the man is undefeated.

As the film opens, northern China's grandmaster is seeking to set up a competition between the country's two halves and Ip is the man he chooses to represent the South. But the fight never materializes as the Sino-Japanese War sets in, forcing Ip to flee his home and relocate to Hong Kong, where he becomes a teacher.

The heart of the film, however, is centered around his friendship with and - taking a page from Wong's majestic "In the Mood for Love" - unspoken love for Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), a rival who is hunting her father's killer.

For those familiar with the director's work, it should come as no surprise that "The Grandmaster" is never anything less than visually rapturous. A fight between Ip and a group of challengers in the rain is the most amazing kung fu sequence I've seen since "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and another sparring match between Ip and Gong Er on a staircase is presented almost as a ballet.

If the film fumbles at all, it's in its insistence on scenes in which characters discuss every form of kung fu known to man and skimping slightly on Ip's story. The death of his two daughters from starvation, for example, is a mere footnote.

While I preferred "The Grandmaster" to Wong's other kung fu spectacle - "Ashes of Time," which is among my least favorite of his works - it doesn't quite compare with the director's great films - "In the Mood for Love," "Happy Together," "2046," "Fallen Angels," "Chungking Express" and "Days of Being Wild."

And yet, I defy you to find a film that looks this incredible. Even if "The Grandmaster" is more of a minor work for the great Hong Kong director, it's still more than worth a look.

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