The Grandmaster Blu-ray Review
For those that are unfamiliar with the story of Ip Man, The Grandmaster tells the tale of the well-respected martial artist who would one day be known as the man who trained the legendary Bruce Lee. But that is just one small facet of his life, and the film chooses mostly to focus on the relationship between Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) over multiple decades. The Grandmaster documents the life of the Wing Chun master from the early 1930s in Foshan, to his time in Hong Kong during the Second Sino-Japanese War, up to when his martial arts school begins to find success. Director Wong Kar-Wai manages to strike a balance between action-packed fight sequences and softer moments, and captures some truly striking imagery throughout (such as the standout initial fight sequence pitting Ip Man against a dozen opponents in the pouring rain).
As The Grandmaster shows, Ip Man grew up very wealthy, living off of family money for his first 40 years of life, and focusing all of his time and effort on the mastery of Wing Chun. As he puts it, the first 40 years of his life were spring, if life had four seasons – and it went straight to winter the day that the Japanese invaded. Ip loses his riches as the war rages on, and soon enough everything he holds dear is lost as well. Ip travels to Hong Kong to try and earn money to feed his family, and is unknowingly separated from them forever as the borders close in as the war goes on. These events mostly serve as a backdrop to Gong Er and Ip Man’s relationship, as they long for each other as the years pass. The Grandmaster also focuses on the idea of tradition, and how change is a necessity for a legacy to be carried on. The film is less about Ip Man the person, but more about the change he brought about in China. Though his tale is a tragic one, his will to carry on throughout all that has happened to him lends the film a theme of hope.
Fans of martial arts films will likely remember the Ip Man films, which featured Donnie Yen and told this story before. But The Grandmaster manages to feel much different, with more artistic cinematography and action choreography that reminded me a lot of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I later discovered that the action director for this film was Woo-ping Yuen, who worked on not only Crouching Tiger but also Kill Bill, Drunken Master, The Matrix trilogy, Black Mask, and many other classic martial arts movies. There are a few incredible fight sequences in The Grandmaster, including an elegant confrontation in a brothel, a nighttime brawl in a downpour, and a tense showdown in front of a speeding train. All of these sequences have a very dance-like, balletic quality, especially the brothel battle between Gong Er and Ip Man, which really highlights the attraction between them. Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang do a solid job of conveying the necessary emotion that their roles call for, and their on-screen chemistry feels believable.
The Blu-ray release of The Grandmaster features a healthy dose of extras, including “The Grandmaster: From Ip Man to Bruce Lee”, which has stars like Keanu Reeves and Gina Carano, as well as the director and martial arts experts, talking about the importance of Ip Man’s legacy. It also showcases Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi’s years of training for the film, and though Ziyi is know for martial arts films, Tony began learning at age 47 for the movie. “A Conversation With Shannon Lee” has Bruce Lee’s daughter offering some interesting insight into both Lee and Ip Man’s lives. There’s also a 50-minute making-of piece, as well as an interview with RZA (a big fan of the martial arts genre) as he explains what the film means to him.
The Grandmaster is a beautifully shot, engrossing film which masterfully captures Ip Man’s tragic, emotional story. The transfer on this Blu-ray release is fantastic, as every frame of Wong Kar-Wai’s epic looks and feels like a painting. If I were to offer any criticism of the film itself it would be that The Grandmaster seems to lose focus around the midpoint, as it simply narrates major events in Ip’s life before transitioning mostly to Gong Er’s side of the story. It’s been said that the original cut of the film was four hours long, and the international version is roughly a half hour longer than the US release, so the glossing over of these events was likely necessary for pacing reasons. Even despite its narrative flaws, this is a must-see film for fans of the martial arts, and those who simply appreciate great cinematography.