The Grandmaster can't decide what it wants to be. And that makes me want to throw something.
Director Kar Wai Wong has had a grand film career, most of which has gone unnoticed by American audiences. There's In the Mood for Love and 2046 - films about unrequited but ultimately doomed love - and the quirky Chungking Express, which featured an expired can of pineapple slices as a major plot point. Highly-stylized and beautifully shot, these and others show a director who's not been afraid to push the boundaries of cinema. Unfortunately, his newest film The Grandmaster can't decide if it's a tender love story, a Kung-Fu epic, or a poignant tale of revenge in post-WWII China. That's too bad, because it looks so damn good trying.
As the film opens in 1936 China, Ip Man (Tony Leung) does more than merely practice martial arts, but is clearly better than any of the southern brawlers he meets on a rain-soaked evening. Sporting a white hat and using a fighting style called wing chun, Ip gains the attention of the elder grandmaster Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang), who wishes to demonstrate northern Kung Fu superiority before he retires. But it's also clear that Baosen is looking for a successor, to impart a famous technique that only he knows and to reunite both regions before Japanese occupation destroys the ancient world that Ip and the others hold so dear. Complicating matters is the arrival of Gong's daughter Er (Ziyi Zhang), whose breathtaking beauty is only equaled by her skill as a martial artist. The holder of the elusive 64 Hands, she wants control of her father's secret, hoping to bring China into a different kind of age; but her world has no use for a female leader, with Gong Sr. choosing the radical Ma San (Jin Zhang). Ip Er and Ip tussle in an elaborately-shot stairway scene that seems more like ballet than a precursor to a competition. But any demonstration and the couple's growing feelings for each other are put on hold as China descends into World War II, isolating the two until years later. As Ip tries to put the pieces of his shattered life back together, he meets Er one last time, and learns how her triumph over San came at a great price.
The Grandmaster is not directly connected to the Ip Man series, but does feature the titular character who gained fame for training Bruce Lee. And although there are scenes near the end of Ip palling around with Lee, there's simply too much going on prior for us to care. Grandmaster can't decide if it wants to be a well-shot action piece, a stirring drama, a poignant love story, or a tale of revenge. Something like this needs time to breathe, but due to contractual obligations to keep the movie at 99 minutes - the international version is much longer - none of those aspects are performed consistently well. The fight scenes are at once gorgeous but shot too close and edited too fast for audiences to take it all in. Choreographed by Hero and Iron Monkey's Yuen Wo Ping, there's the cliche gentle push by a master that sends lesser folk flying into gates, and the flip-over-slide-along-the-floor as our hero absorbs a crushing leg blow. The action is eye candy to those of us who enjoy such spectacle, especially the stairway scene reminiscent of the battle between Moon and Flying Snow in Hero. But Director Wong's drama languishes too long in a heaping pile of unnecessary plots, robbing the film of any inertia while failing to show the connection between basic plot points. It's hard not to compare his final product to other action imports from the last two decades, which might not look as good but certainly were better constructed.
In the end, The Grandmaster could have been a sweeping two-part epic, showcasing Wong's acumen while bringing Ip Man's first 50 years to a dramatic close and paving the way for a film exclusively about his training of Bruce Lee. Instead, we get four incoherent tales shot on top of each other like one of Ip's throwdowns with southern China masters as he makes his way through the building floors ala The Raid: Redemption. Wong is an artist who should get more respect in America than he does, but this one isn't the grand entrance he was hoping. The Grandmaster is rated PG-13 for violence and has a runtime of 99 minutes.
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