Some readers may recall that just a few years ago a biopic about Wing Chung master Ip Man won some major Asian film awards. A few of you may even have read my review of Wilson Yip's film. It might seem presumptuous of Wong Kar-wai to do his own Ip Man picture so soon afterward, until you recall that Hollywood has notoriously released competing versions of the same subject in the same year -- see 2013's two terrorists-attack-the-White House pictures. Still, there's a sense that Wong is pulling rank, if only because his stature as one of Asia's premier art-house directors earned his Ip Man movie a more extensive American theatrical release than Yip's ever got. Wong paid a price for that, reportedly supervising an American edition that falls more than 20 minutes short of the film's actual length (detailed disapprovingly here) yet including material missing from the original Chinese release. His supervision of the cutdown presumably entitled the American release to its "Martin Scorsese Presents" credit, since it's hard to imagine Scorsese endorsing a studio hack-job. In some markets, Samuel L. Jackson is also billed as a presenter, and that's certainly the easiest money the actor ever made, since the Weinstein Company apparently bought the use of his name for street cred. But I digress. The challenge for Wong is to avoid an Amazing Spider-Man situation where too many people wonder aloud why we needed an Ip Man "reboot" so soon. The Wilson Yip film (and its sequel) are readily available on Netflix, so it's not as if that film is buried, and it's certainly even more fresh in Chinese memories than for American movie buffs. Fortunately -- and, to be fair, predictably, Wong does a lot to differentiate his version of Ip Man's life, even to the point of making you question to whom the title refers.
I described the Wilson Yip movie as a cross between Fists of Fury and Cinderella Man, and The Grandmaster is neither of those. While Wong's picture is a kind of national epic in its own fashion, it's not the Japan-bashing exercise Ip Man and so many other Chinese kung fu movies are. Wong's Ip Man (Tony Leung) never fights a Japanese, at least in the American cut. The Grandmaster is more about China defining itself to itself than about China defining itself by resistance to Japan. It's a tragic epic, mindful of thwarted possibilities in the past and concerned constantly with what ought to be preserved as the country changes. The central thematic figure, if not the true title character, is Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of Gong Yutian, the "grandmaster" of northern Chinese kung fu. Despite what you see in movies, Gong Er's gender precludes her from succeeding her father, even though he has taught her and her alone the obscure yet powerful 64 Hands technique. Instead, Yutian hands his authority over to the arrogant Ma San (Zhang Jin), who foreshadows his unworthiness by making a violent spectacle of himself during Yutian's goodwill final visit to his southern counterparts, among whom is our hero. He's recognizably the same character Donnie Yen played so well in the earlier picture: a mild-mannered bourgeois fellow with skills that don't need self-promotion. Jealous of northern superiority, the southern kingpins promote Ip Man as Yutian's final challenger, but the bout is more of a philosophical contest fought over a cookie. Having already sent Ma San packing, Yutian leaves it to his daughter to settle the score when Ip gets the better of their encounter. The stipulation in their case, since kung fu is about precision, is that if Gong Er forces Ip Man to break anything during their fight on a lavishly furnished stairway, she's the winner. The splitting of a stair is the margin of victory, but nothing becomes of this. More might have, because there's a strong air of flirting to their fight, despite Ip's respectable marriage, but Ip has to break his promise to visit Gong Er in the north when the Japanese occupy his town of Foshan.
The Grandmaster brushes over relatively briefly Ip Man's World War II adventures. He has no audience-gratifying fights with the Japs, and two of his children die of starvation during the occupation. Instead, Wong pushes on to the post-war period, when the still-impoverished Ip moves to Hong Kong in search of work as a kung fu teacher. It's a different world from the glamorous Foshan of the first part, and while Ip won't stoop to some of the gimmickry of his rivals (lion dancing, etc.) he has to hustle to earn a rep. Once he's done this, he virtually disappears from the film after finding Gong Er working as a doctor in Hong Kong. Our hero chivalrously steps aside for a long flashback recounting our heroine's World War II adventures. Grandmaster Ma San proves a rat, collaborating with the Japanese puppet regime in Manchukuo and killing his old master when he protests, though not before the old man punches him out the door. Gong Er swears vengeance, with the dire stipulation that she will neither marry nor teach kung fu. She remains true to that oath after settling accounts with Ma San, which means that the 64 Hands style will be lost forever. Ip Man can't dissuade her, nor can he save her; lingering injuries force her to become dependent on opium en route to an early grave. Hers is a tragedy of wasted potential, since she is shown to be the mightiest fighter of her time. She's twice-over a victim of her times; denied her rightful standing because of traditional sexism, she also limits herself out of a misplaced sense of tradition, stubbornly sticking to her oath when a new age makes other options possible. "Some people may live without rules, but I can't," she says. Of her, Ip Man says, "Like her father, she was never defeated. She only ever defeated herself." His own career, culminating in his mentorship of Bruce Lee, symbolizes the preservation and democratization of martial arts as a key to retaining China's cultural and moral identity during times of radical, ongoing transformation.
Like Wilson Yip's Ip Man, The Grandmaster is a film about a martial artist, but Wong's picture is less of a martial-arts movie than Yip's. Anyone who's seen Ashes of Time Redux knew to expect something more expressionist from Wong, and he delivers, if to the detriment of the tradition he claims to memorialize. While Yip had Sammo Hung choreographing his fights, Wong relies on that international stalwart Yuen Woo-ping, but reduces him to little more than a glorified gag man. Wong's fight scenes are all about editing and cinematography as the director strives to isolate startling instants of impact or pictorially brilliant moments; no long takes here. The results are inevitably mixed. An early brawl in the rain may remind some of Pacific Rim in its near-blur of damp monochrome mayhem, but the climactic fight between Gong Er and Ma San in a snowy railway station gets much closer to the tone Wong aims for. While I hope to avoid the purism that may make late-Seventies kung fu movies seem monotonous to some viewers, I do think Wong is often guilty of pretentious pictorial bullshit. He likes to employ slow-motion at supposedly signficant times, or for atmospheric effect, and not just in fight scenes, but the style too often reminded me of music videos. Slow-mo is one of my pet peeves, but it may bother others less. Having gotten that out of my system, I owe Wong credit for how good the film looks overall -- the 1930s section is reminiscent of everything from The Godfather to The Last Emperor to Shanghai Triad, while the "Once Upon a Time in Kung Fu" tag in the advertising is a conscious (and crude) invocation of Sergio Leone echoed in the use of Ennio Morricone's music from Once Upon a Time in America -- and for his direction of the lead actors. While Donnie Yen made a fine Ip Man both as a fighter and a character, Tony Leung is simply in another league as an actor, while Ziyi Zhang is as terrific as Gong Er as anyone would expect. The lead characters' unconsummated romance carries symbolic weight, arguably representing roads not taken by their country, but the emotional intensity they convey in their formally understated fashion is part of that extra something Wong Kar-wai brings to the subject that makes revisiting the life of Ip Man worthwhile.