BLU-RAY REVIEW: THE GRANDMASTER / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: WONG KAR-WAI / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: TONY LEUNG CHIU-WAI, ZHANG ZIYI, CUNG LE, QINGXIANG WANG, ELVIS TSUI / RELEASE DATE: MARCH 30TH
When a film takes pleasure in its own meandering, that film is generally frowned upon as obnoxious and a waste of everyone’s time – but Wong Kar-wai’s Ip Man biopic The Grandmaster has too fine a flair to it for it to be judged harshly. A cinematic telling of martial artist and Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man’s life (portrayed by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and career as a Grandmaster, teacher and family man, the film is not without its charms, despite the sheer muddle it puts itself in.
The film is set mostly throughout the early/mid twentieth century, between the 1930s and 1950s, and this is reflected in much of Kar-wai’s ever-present stylized flavour of film-making. It gets to a point where the film looks so darn interesting, from set-pieces to direction, that you almost don’t notice how nearly every precious moment in The Grandmaster drags like heroine Gong Er (aka Zhang Ziyi) as she silently pulls her feet along the wooden floor in time-honoured style, ready to battle Ip Man in a test of his skill during their initial meeting.
Whether each pivotal scene having an abnormally slow pace and editing style is to strengthen the scenes’ impact or to allow audiences to dazzle in the film’s immensely pretty appearance is debatable, but it’s also debatable just how much of this type of film-making you’re prepared to put up with.
What little story there is in The Grandmaster is executed in a scrapbook manner – bits of Ip’s story here, some of Gong’s backstory there, and a dash of their unrealised romance on top. It’s a shame the story is handled in such a haphazard way, because it offers something genuinely interesting, then snatches it back before you can really begin to take in what occurs throughout Ip Man’s life as he balances his martial arts with personal struggles. Leung Chiu-Wai carries the character with subtlety and conviction, but the snatching robs any real emotional reverence from his performance.
Throughout the film, Ip plays his part in unwittingly becoming northern China’s martial arts representative against southern China, loses his family due to China’s second conflict with Japan between 1937 and 1945, and has a relationship blossoming and withering back and forth with Gong Er, the daughter of southern China’s elderly representative in martial arts. So much emotional entanglement for Ip is hinted at but rarely develops, no matter how deftly crafted each scene is in its emotional resonance. That resonance is only skin-deep, literally, as Kar-wai being the director that he is places the emphasis firmly on how the film looks.
In that respect then, The Grandmaster is excellent. The fight scenes that occur throughout this film are all mouth-wateringly well crafted, a highpoint being Gong Er’s final confrontation with the backstabbing Ma San. That one scene, set against a snow-laden backdrop within a station where a steam train gallops alongside their battle, almost feels as if it reclaims Kill Bill’s own snow-covered climax out of Tarantino’s genre-blender hands.
But The Grandmaster isn’t nearly as boisterous as Kill Bill – it’s perfectly happy in chugging along at its own slow pace and feels as if it has no qualms with its muddled content. Its strength lies in its visuals, hence they are exploited to quiet enjoyment. The Grandmaster isn’t the thrill ride its title may lead you to believe – if anything, it’s the exact opposite of that. A mess for sure, but one that’s undeniably ravishing to gawp at.
Special Features: TBC
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