The Grandmaster is a sweeping martial arts epic from the Chinese auteur Kar Wai Wong, who made his name on the international film scene in 2000 with In the Mood for Love and latterly with 2007’s My Blueberry Nights, which marked his English language debut. Wong’s directorial eye has always been drawn to moody love stories suffused with a rich operatic elegance. He brings these same sensibilities to the real life story of martial-arts master IP Man, who trained the legendary Bruce Lee.
The story opens on the rain-soaked streets of Foshan. IP Man (Tony Chiu Wai Leung) faces down a gang of local thugs, dispatching them in a seamless display of kung fu. His unmatched skills make him the heir apparent to Master Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang) school of martial arts, which unified the country’s myriad fighting styles. Naturally, IP Man’s appointment ruffles some feathers, none more so than Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), who wishes to retain her family’s honour. A secret duel is arranged between them that begins a long love affair, which is marred by revenge and the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Grandmaster shines above the usual period martial arts blockbuster because of Wong’s passion for the subject matter, which is obsessive to say the least. This film clearly has been a labour of love: every frame is beautifully composed, every costume is carefully stitched, and every punch and kick is perfectly choreographed. It is a banquet for the eyes to feast on and its poetic structure gives a unique insight into IP Man’s life of honour and stoicism in the face of tragedy.
Wong’s long cinematic brush strokes paint an expansive canvas, which at times becomes unfocused. This is especially apparent in the final third of the film when a flashback to Gong Er battling with a disloyal student is used to frame the story’s climactic showdown, with IP Man nowhere to be seen. It is an idiosyncratic ending that is both hauntingly beautiful and melancholic, which serves as an ode to a bygone age of martial arts tradition.