Review of The Grandmaster, Directed by Wong Kar-wai
As a fan of epic martial arts films, I was thoroughly disappointed by The Grandmaster. The beautiful cinematography and well-choreographed action sequences could not save the film from what can only be described as poor storytelling. This film is not recommended. For those still interested in watching The Grandmaster after the previous sentences, read below.
The film tells the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung). Ip Man is the famed popularizer of Wing Chun, a school of martial arts, and more famously known as the teacher of Bruce Lee. The Grandmaster opens in the 1930s as Gong Yutian, the Grandmaster from northern China, travels to the south to introduce his successor, Ma San. The first quarter of the film feels like a martial arts expo, with masters of different schools sparring with Ip Man to prepare him for his fight against Gong Yutian. The film begins with martial arts and does not slow down until after Ip Man’s match against Grandmaster Gong, leaving audiences self-conscious that there is no reason to have any stake in the battle, having built no relationship with the characters.
The challenge ends up being a match of wits. Ip Man proves himself, and the Grandmaster acknowledges Ip Man as the Grandmaster of the South, leaving Ma San as the Grandmaster of the North. Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), Gong Yutian’s daughter, is also a martial artist and challenges Ip Man to a duel, which Gong Er wins.
After this, The Grandmaster declines into a jumbled mess. There is a romantic fling between Ip Man and Gong Er, but she must avenge her father and restore the family legacy after Ma San disgraces himself by becoming a colluder with the invading Japanese military. Ip Man loses his family during WWII, but again audiences do not feel any connection with the characters. There is even ambiguity as to why he had to leave his wife—a choice which seems to be passed over lightly, even though it is the reason why he ends up in Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong he meets Gong Er again, but their romance is ill-fated and quickly disrupted by a prolonged flashback to what happened to the Gong family during the Japanese occupation. Audiences are then jerked back to the “present” and witness the success of Ip Man’s enterprise to teach serious martial arts in Hong Kong; we even catch a glimpse of an adolescent Bruce Lee.
What can we take away from The Grandmaster? Nothing. The story lacks cohesion. The dialogue is limited and every few scenes there is a cinematographic portrait of a character or landscape paired with mournful cello music. A significant portion of the film is reminiscent of MTV music videos. From beginning to end, The Grandmaster lacks substance. It was neither entertaining nor a well-scripted drama. If you are interested in the story of Ip Man, I recommend Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010), directed by Wilson Yip with Donnie Yen as Ip Man.
Admittedly, this review is harsh. But when you start looking at your watch halfway through the film, you will understand.