The Grandmaster is a story that proudly claims its Bruce Lee links, but doesn’t show a single frame of him. Ip Man, the Grandmaster of the title, is revered in China for uniting the Northern and Southern schools of martial arts, sort of the Abraham Lincoln of Kung Fu, but Wong Kar Wai is more of a lover than a fighter as a director, so the story of Ip Man gets layered in an elegiac, nostalgic tone so heavy with rain, wind and snow and David Lean looking moments that it almost becomes a martial arts Dr Zhivago.
Over the course of the film, we see Ip Man lose his family fortune, endure the Japanese invasion of the 1930s, battle any number of would-be challengers and fall passionately, albeit platonically, in love with Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), who has inherited her father’s deadly “64 Hands” technique.
The martial art sequences are balletic in their execution and gorgeously shot in whatever weary element the theme and plot requires. Just as well, it also has the chemistry, with the shot of that one stare between Tony Leung (who trained for three years to do the role) and Ziyi Zhang (a Kung Fu veteran who has feature roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and gained her romantic credibility by starring in Memoirs of a Geisha) as well as the button, given to her as a token of respect, that is slid across a table.
In Wong Kar Wai’s hands the martial arts is just a highlight reel that gets to the love story (told without a single kiss or hug exchanged) about love lost, but artistry gained– and Ip Man’s story about the lessons The Grandmaster never learned. The Grandmaster gets a B.
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