The Grandmaster ReviewSeptember 21, 2013
Biopics have not done so well this year – although Lee Daniels’ The Butler has made a significant amount of money at the box office, it had only a modest critical reception, while Jobs has been an utter failure on all accounts. This is why I turn to The Grandmaster in high hopes, first and foremost because of the prestigious talent involved – Wong Kar-Wai, the esteemed Chinese filmmaker behind Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, is the writer and director here. Not only that, this film chronicles the life story of Ip Man – the kung fu grandmaster who trained Bruce Lee – so this film represents a wedding of the biopic and martial arts genres. In that sense, can The Grandmaster excel where other biopics have fallen short this year?
It is the early 1930s, and the threat of invasion from the Japanese Empire is looming over China. At this time, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) – the martial arts grandmaster from the North – has announced that he has retired from his position, and that he has already appointed his son Ma San as the new master. After making a trek to Foshan, a township in the South, he makes the conclusion that a new grandmaster should be chosen for that part of the country as well. With that, many discussions arise regarding who should represent the South in this bout to see who will become the new master, and with that a man named Ip Man (Tony Leung) and a woman named Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) both prove to be formidable opponents. From there, we see their lives as they change throughout the years, starting from that point through other events such as the Second Sino-Japanese War.
If there was anyone who could overturn the limited boundaries of the biopic genre, it would be an auteur such as Wong Kar-Wai. For the most part, The Grandmaster is a success, but it unfortunately falls short of greatness in the long run. The main problem is that to an extent, the film does follow genre conventions – particularly in how the story is basically structured in vignettes that show us different aspects of Ip Man’s life. This could work in a way, but here I didn’t feel like I had learned much of who Ip Man actually was in life, let alone did I feel much of a personal connection to the character. It’s just disappointing that the film is structured as more or less a conventional biopic, and even then the story of Gong Er is surprisingly more compelling. In the end, though, The Grandmaster works because even if the story does not generally delve into the humanity of its real-life characters, it remains interesting because of its action scenes and the way Wong Kar-Wai captures the art of kung fu as a major element of Chinese culture. Through the action and character interactions, it was clear to say that martial arts encompasses relationships, honor and spiritual development in China, so that alone was an interesting enough motif to hold my interest.
Even if the story itself fails to do enough justice for Ip Man, Tony Leung gives a rather good performance as the man who trained Bruce Lee. His commitment to character in The Grandmaster is on the level where he simply disappeared in the character, and that made his work all the more mesmerizing. Simply watching him interact with other people talking about kung fu was interesting, but it’s all the more impressive that he infuses grace and subtlety to his performance in the action scenes. Zhang Ziyi is just as great in her role as Gong Er, though, for like many other critics have said she brings so much conviction and emotion to her memorable character that her own standalone film would have been great. Watching Ziyi and Leung work together on screen is especially awesome.
As expected, what really stand out here are the action scenes. Sure, there are plenty of fast cuts that are infused into these sequences, but Wong Kar-Wai was wise enough to hold his camera back far enough for us to actually see the action at least. However, what really elevates the action above standards is the choice to observe the art of the choreography from nearly every angle – above, from a normal view, and even slow-motion shots of fighters positioning their feet on the ground. These carefully constructed shots give us insight into the fact that self defense actually is an art form. Other than that though, The Grandmaster is simply gorgeously-photographed, particularly in action scenes that are staged in the rain. Sound is also a surprising aspect of the action, for here it is emphasized so that we can actually feel the pain and stress that the characters are feeling from receiving punches, kicks, and so forth.
For those hoping for a masterful biopic on the level of Lincoln, Malcolm X or Catch Me If You Can, you won’t get it here. In fact, it’s shocking how much this film connects you to one of its supporting character rather than the central subject at hand. Despite this, The Grandmaster is still an interesting exploration into how martial arts are such a major aspect of Chinese culture. If that’s not what you are necessarily looking for though, you will not be disappointed by the spectacular action scenes. Rest assured, The Grandmaster is a surprisingly good blend between an intriguing biopic and a martial arts classic.