Thursday, 19 February 2015
REVIEW: THE GRANDMASTER
As is often the case with action cinema from Hong Kong, this is the story of Ip Man. We've seen several adaptations of the Ip Man story over the years, but none more beautiful than Wong Kar-Wai's. Ip Man was born and raised in Foshan and from his youth he took part in martial arts contests in and around the Gold Pavilion.
Then, one day, Master Gong held a retirement ceremony at the Gold Pavilion and Ip Man made his presence felt. Angered and frustrated, there were some that wanted to take back what they thought was theirs. Others, however, were looking for enlightenment. Whatever the outcome, expect plenty of dazzling action and sumptuous cinematography along the way.
Being a Wong Kar-Wai movie, you can also expect to see a little romance as well. Albeit, somewhat fleetingly. Master Gong's daughter, Gong Er (the ever exquisite Zhang Ziyi) challenges Ip Man (Tony Leung) to a contest and they clash magnificently.
Respect is born that day but over the years they are kept apart by different paths - kind of like When Harry Met Sally but without the orgasm scene. Which is probably a good thing seeing as their hearts belong to other people. There is a deep bond though, a relationship that develops over time, but as always, Wong Kar-Wai is in no rush to tell their story. Or in fact, any story.
In truth, The Grandmaster is a love letter to the martial arts world and any hint of romance takes a back seat to its majesty and splendour. Wong Kar-Wai ticks all the boxes of modern action cinema, so efficiently in fact, at times it could be mistaken for a parody. Duels take place at night in the pouring rain, cutting between frenetic fights and slow motion showdowns. It looks fantastic, naturally, but sometimes it feels intrusive too.
As expected, it's a beautiful, balletic opera in the hands of Kar-Wai, but in all honesty, there's nothing particularly fresh about it either. It is, after all, yet another biopic of Ip Man. Some may question the need, not to mention the perplexing lack of screen time for Chang Chen, who is devastatingly absent for most of the movie.
Wong Kar-Wai completists will lap this up though. With The Grandmaster, he has successfully broken out of his comfort zone whilst simultaneously retaining the elements demanded by his followers. Action junkies will get a kick out of the fight choreography but might be put off by the arty tone that threatens to alienate casual viewers.
Still, whatever side of the Kar-Wai fence you sit on, The Grandmaster remains a striking proposition. Martial arts connoisseurs will likely embrace it, and rightly so. For anybody left untouched however, there will always be Donnie Yen. There is, after all, plenty of room at the martial arts table for both.