The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi)

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There have been many movies covering the life of Ip Man. This newest iteration, by writer/director Kar Wai Wong (My Blueberry Nights), is as unique as his other work, and as visually stunning. It also reunites his main actors from their turns in his earlier effort, 2046. As a movie and a docu-drama, however, it falls a little short of compelling.

The formidable Leung (Red CliffLust/Caution), as Ip, brings a solidity and delight into his role; a centeredness. But his performance is somehow devoid of emotion and his actions of consequences, despite the volatile and fascinating life of Ip Man. His focus on Zhang (House of Flying Daggers) as Gong Er is intense, but there is little to the journey between the two that doesn’t feel like Wong just marking a timeline with pretty pictures and fights. Unlike Hero, which also had Zhang and Leung, the marking of the history is done rather dryly through text and some stock footage. While, perhaps, this approach had impact in China, it lacks the same effect for foreign audiences.

Finally, the near-fantasy nature of the presentation, including some wire work, adds to the oddness of the story. Ip was the “real deal.” The fantastical presentation of some of the fights somewhat cheapens and weakens his place in marital arts history. And the attempt to shift to the more spiritual aspects of the craft don’t carry enough weight to make up for the lack of reality.

That said, there are some fun nods to Bruce Lee, particularly near the beginning where Ip runs through a sequence similar to Game of Death as he prepares for his fight with the exiting Grandmaster.

I would have preferred to see a more realistic drama and epic story than what Wong wanted to tell. But what he does give us is gorgeous to behold. And some of the fights are great to see, even if he couldn’t let go of the slo-mo and tight frame approach. Whether this version of Ip Man’s story resonates for you may depend on how steeped you are in the lore and what you hope to get from the story.

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