Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is often claimed to be one of the most influential martial arts masters of all time, and his fame rests on having taught worldwide superstar Bruce Lee Wing Chun, a technique that the actor based his own style upon. But what of the man himself, what kind of life did he lead? He began learning his craft from a very young age, living and breathing the fighting methods as a philosophy, but the China we was growing to adulthood in was a land in turmoil, split along the North/South divide and threatened by Japan. By the time he had his own family, Ip was renowned far and wide for his expert martial arts, and with many wishing to prove themselves equally adept, fighting was often the order of the day…
If writer and director Wong Kar Wai had pulled his finger out, The Grandmaster might not have come across as having rather missed the boat as far as the glut of Bruce Lee-related movies from out of China and Hong Kong went. The Ip Man films were a subsection of those, trading on the kudos the real life individual received from his association with the star of Enter the Dragon, even if there was some dispute as to precisely how close they ever were, but the point held: here was the man whose Wing Chun style was educational in Lee’s early years, so we had to go back to see what he was really like to get a better understanding of both the global celebrity’s heart and soul, and also the man who could conceivably have been even better.
Of course, the way action sequences were approached in the twenty-first century when these movies were released was different to the way Lee did his fights, and that meant to make them look all the more dynamic, fast cutting was de rigueur, leaving the audience with an impression of the terrific skill without having the actors necessarily match it. Indeed, for much of the time it looked as if these director called “action”, one punch or kick was thrown, then they shouted “cut” and then repeated the process until enough for a full sequence could be arranged in the editing room. For that reason there were grumbles from the purists who enjoyed the era of Hong Kong movies that lasted from somewhere in the late sixties to the mid-nineties, when things got flashier.
Therefore Leung’s Ip Man was really no better or worse than any star who was treading in Bruce Lee’s footsteps when they had their director to rely on to make them look good, although there was a difference with Wong for he was applying his own specific, dreamy expression to what could have been fodder for your average Donnie Yen flick, which it was, of course. You could regard this as one of his great romances with its longing and thwarted desire, for Ziyi Zhang was part of the cast, the leading lady in the role of Gong Er who is the daughter of one of Ip’s main rivals, a master who has taught her all he knows. She assuredly got her share of action sequences, so much so that Wong looked to be far more interested in her than he was in his ostensible main character of whom this was supposed to be a biopic, and with its out of chronological order editing she was able to dominate.
It should be noted there was more than one edit of The Grandmaster, for the Weinsteins got their hands on it and had it recut and shortened for international audiences, supposedly so they could make it more understandable for outsiders coming fresh to the plot: this also meant extensive voiceovers which made the movie resemble an illustrated talking book for much of the running time. Inevitably there were disagreements over which cut was the better, with some even expressing an interest in the original four hour long version that Wong was apparently sitting on, but truth be told no matter how golden hued and glossy it looked in its near reverie, the fact remained a straightforward martial arts film was an odd fit for this director, certainly by the point it had been released after a bunch of others with much the same subject, so a film about technique became chained to a technique in itself, giving the impression that important points had been forgotten in the drive for visual beauty. Music by Nathaniel Méchaly and Shigeru Umebayashi.