Flawed yet visually luxurious, Veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster is an imperfect fusion of art-house, martial arts, historical drama and biopic. The sporadic film is yet another retelling of the real-life legend of martial arts teacher Ip Man (who would later train Bruce Lee) but with jarring results.
To the detriment of plot cohesion, Kar-Wai ambitiously tries to blur the lines between the spiritual mythos of martial arts films, with the true to life events of the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930’s. Expectedly and thankfully, the film alternates between these uneven sequences of reality and dream-like fiction with a series of gorgeously photographed fight sequences choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, The Matrix). The more exhilarating action scenes, one set in the pouring rain and the other alongside a speeding train are among the very best of its genre’s more recent history.
While Kar-Wai’s latest effort can be emotionally engaging at times, with poignant unrequited love plotlines and notions about legacy and honour, too much time is spent shifting focus between timelines and supporting character’s underdeveloped arches.
Tony Leung proves both charismatic and endearing as the film’s titular character and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have Ziyi Zhang of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame as Ip man’s love interest and sparring partner. Both give strong performances that manage to rise above the muddled and disjointed story foundations surrounding them.
Enthusiasts for the genre should be drawn in by the stylish action and stunning visuals on display. It’s just a pity that you have to wait patiently for each one to arrive.