A chronicle of the legendary Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), a Wing Chung martial-arts master who famously taught Bruce Lee, The Grandmaster is another of director Wong Kar-wai’s examinations of time as the great tragic human leveler and humbler. This is a film that’s more likely to invite comparisons to the writings of Marcel Proust than the previous Ip Man films featuring Donnie Yen as the icon. Leung’s Ip Man isn’t the clean-cut inspirational Mr. Miyagi figure that Yen played, but a tormented mystery who continually eludes the audience’s grasp. This Master Ip is a man who sacrifices his individuality for the higher calling of his art, as he appears to possess a nearly divine understanding of the legacy he’s fashioning, and Wong appropriately allows the character to recede from his own biography so the audience will feel the personality that’s being suppressed for the sake of historic posterity.
As he’s displayed in prior roles, particularly Wong’s In the Mood for Love, Leung is most certainly up to the challenge of conveying the hidden dimensions of characters who operate behind misleadingly poised exteriors. Most obviously, Leung is simply a beautifully commanding camera object, but he also has the grace and subtlety to let you see how minute physical gestures spring from the larger emotional turmoil that’s threatening to overturn his characters from within. He does some wonderful physical work in The Grandmaster, especially with his hands, which are called on, in the tradition of Wong’s heroes, to release emotions that their master’s tightly guarded eyes refuse to acknowledge.
But The Grandmaster is still, sadly, a disappointment. Wong appears to be aiming for an elegiac historical drama that uncovers fresh emotional wrinkles in a familiar story. Most of the famous beats of the traditional Ip Man narrative are covered, including his early efforts to prove himself as a martial artist in Foshan in the 1930s, the loss of his fortune during the second Sino-Japanese War, and his eventual flight to Hong Kong, where he’d set up shop as a formal martial-arts teacher. But with the exception of a series of stunning fight sequences set in an elaborately designed brothel early in the film, we never experience much of Master Ip’s life directly. Wong will spend 10 minutes relaying to the audience—in characteristically primal and erotic imagery—an episode like the story of Master Ip’s longing for a winter jacket that recalls his thwarted friendship with rival Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang, gorgeous and heartbreaking), only to address pivotal events like the loss of Ip’s daughters to starvation with two lines of cursory narration.
The entire film is composed of similarly odd emphases, which add up to a story so episodic it appears to be starting all over again every 10 minutes or so. Theoretically important characters, such as a number of rival Foshan masters, are abandoned for long stretches only to startlingly reappear for a random update. There are long pageantry sequences—of people walking in the rain, of a woman hunting her father’s killer—that are staged with little sense of dramatic context or rhythm. Viewers unfamiliar with Master Ip’s story will feel as if they’ve stumbled into a party with which they were pointedly dis-invited, and fans of the tale may twiddle their thumbs in frustration waiting for the story to actually emerge.
Master Ip’s story, as Wong has chosen to tell it, is also thematically murky. It’s clear that the various elisions are an attempt to untether the film from the obligations of the traditional biographical narrative, and that Wong’s more interested in fashioning an essay on how time forges a man into a legend that renders the man himself ironically superfluous to his own life—a daunting ambition that Todd Haynes realized in his Bob Dylan puzzle film I’m Not There. But Wong’s attempts to demystify the sacrificial nobility that’s routinely celebrated in most kung-fu films has the opposite effect. So much concrete quotidian detail is leeched away from the drama that the viewer has nothing to focus on except the heroic and romantic images that Wong produces with great care. Questions of the sentimentality and sanctimony of nobility are raised, particularly when Master Ip refuses to accept charitable food that his family desperately needs, though the consequences are omitted in favor of another pregnant close-up of a regretful face, or another long fight scene. Those fight scenes are initially exhilarating, but Wong’s manner of breaking every skirmish down into a series of slow-mo grace notes eventually grows as tedious as the narrative.
The Grandmaster is destined to be one of those films that will be celebrated for its flaws, and fans will predictably accuse detractors of being enslaved to conventional notions of three-act storytelling that could only stifle an artist of Wong’s caliber. That’s a legitimate defense if the film under discussion is Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love, or even the underrated 2046, as those are works that successively incorporate the pretense of a narrative as a method of structuring images that entail a breadth of mystery and nuance that resists the easy A-B-C simplification of a conventional script. But The Grandmaster never shirks convention that decisively; its under- and over-plotted at once (often playing like the truncated edition of a much longer movie), and the images and the story often simultaneously strangle the life from one another. It’s a gorgeous folly that never entirely emerges from its creator’s head.