Now here’s a film that contains great film-making without, I think, achieving greatness: acclaimed director Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013). Part biopic, part martial arts epic, part moody art film, this one never really settles on the story it wants to tell — or that was my impression, anyway. (As I understand it, this may be an accidental side effect of the edit shown to American audiences.) I found it visually striking and impressively produced, yet oddly unsatisfying.
It chronicles the late years of Ip Man (the charismatic Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), master of the Wing Chun style of kung fu, and his unrealized love for Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a martial arts grandmaster from Northern China. In the wake of a series of fights during which Ip Man is challenged to establish himself as the south’s master, Gong Er — who, as a woman, “has no place” in the martial arts — engages Ip Man in combat, which leads to a long-term, long distance love affair. Against the backdrop of Japan’s invasion of China during World War II, Ip Man struggles to make a living for his family while Gong Er has her own personal battles to fight — especially against the northern grandmaster’s new heir, Ma San (Zhang Jin).
I found The Grandmaster a frustrating watch, despite its many strengths. Chief among its assets are beautiful cinematography, intense fight scenes, and nicely realized period detail. Leung and Ziyi are both excellent and sell their understated attraction for one another effectively. But the film is kind of a structural mess, and I found it difficult to zero in on the story through all the pretty shots and frantic action. And at times, I found the style intrusive — disrupting the flow of narrative and making it harder to follow the fights. In the end, my reaction was mixed leaning toward negative, but I seemed to be in the minority so maybe this one just wasn’t for me.