Wong Kar-wai has been out of the spotlight for a while but now he returns with his take on the Ip Man story. Ip Man was an iconic figure in the martial arts world, he was also a great student and teacher of the Wing Chun kung fu style. The man was well respected in Hong Kong and he became well known in the west as the master who taught Bruce Lee the technique when he was a teenager.
Well known Hong Kong actors Donnie Yen and Anthony Wong have both starred as the kung fu master in films about his life already so the story is popular. Wong Kar-wai has a unique directing style and a talent for beautifully choreographed action scenes so his take on the story could be interesting.
The Grandmaster stars Tony Leung as Ip Man, and the story focuses on the time he spent living in Foshan during the 1930’s. The film also shows his travel to Hong Kong after the Second-Sino Japanese war and some of the events leading up to his death. Ip Man’s peaceful life in Foshan is interrupted by the arrival of a Northern martial arts master called Gong Yutian, Yutian is the leader of the martial arts community in the North but he wants to retire and is looking for an heir to take his place. Ip Man’s contemporaries nominate him to become the heir and take their southern martial arts techniques to the north. There are many fighters who object to Ip Man’s role as the heir and his appointment causes conflict in the martial arts community. Ip also develops a friendship with Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er played by Zhang Ziyi who never seems to age. The duo try to survive the conflicts in the martial arts community, a mutiny in the Gong family and the Japanese invasion of Foshan which pushes Ip Man into poverty and forces him to relocate to Hong Kong.
The film has an epic scale but Tony Leung’s acting here is stoic and low key, the actor also resembles Ip Man more than Donnie Yen does. The relationship between Ip and Gong could provide a nice human story at the center of a film with epic scope and big martial arts fights. Zhang Ziyi also features in the trailer a fair bit which is to be expected, she is shown training with Ip Man at various points and she is always convincing. Ziyi’s character Gong has a cool fight when she is attacked by a random thug in one scene on a train platform, the two combatants duke it out as a speeding train roars by. Good fight choreography is essential in a martial arts flick and the famous fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping worked on The Grandmaster. Both Ziyi and Leung look good in the fight scenes and they obviously trained hard, there is a rumour that Leung actually broke a few bones while filming the fight scenes.
Ip Man takes on about ten men in a rain soaked street in one scene during the trailer which is full of action, this set-piece takes priority in the trailer as it is shown a few times and it depicts the hero as a man with almost superhuman skills. Ip Man’s attackers go flying as he counter-attacks them in slow motion, the camera often cuts to close-ups of Ip Man’s face as he focuses and prepares for another wave of misguided fools who try to attack him. His expression during this fight scene is almost impassive, he seems to regard his opponents in the same way an elephant might regard a fly, the goons are clearly no match for his superior kung fu techniques. Tony Leung is a very good actor so it would be nice if he gets a chance to flex his acting muscles in the movie and show some expressions. The scene is aesthetically slick but the slow-mo action filming style can get boring if it is used too much, if the director overdoes it with this effect he will ruin the spectacular ebb and flow of a good kung fu fight scene. Over-reliance on close ups during the action is a bad idea too as it obscures the action and movement on camera. The scene however does have Wong’s nice trademark moody atmosphere which is welcome and if the director can use the slow-mo in moderation then it will be all good.
Wong can often get carried away with the visual style in his films and his artistic tendencies, hopefully the rich subject matter here will reign him in and make him show some restraint. Fans of the director will have faith in him although it is unclear if fight fans will appreciate Wong Kar-wai’s style and direction. The trailer is also saddled with a rather cheesy American voice-over which resembles the crap narrations that went along with eighties American action movies. The bland and unimaginative intertitles are also rather poor and cheesy too. These elements undermine the positive aspects in the trailer and the narration in particular is completely unnecessary.
Ip Man’s life story is fascinating and it deserves to be told to a wide audience, the philosophical and introspective elements of his life need to be covered just as well as the artistic action direction in order for this film to really shine. The film should be popular with fans of the director and the fight scenes may win over some newcomers too provided there is a balance and restraint to them.
The Grandmaster doesn’t yet have an official UK release date but keep an eye open for it. Have a look at the trailer and share your thoughts.