Wong Kar-Wai’s films generally don’t play in American multiplexes, but that’s exactly where his latest movie, The Grandmaster, lands this weekend. That’s because it’s a martial-arts film, a genre that crosses language barriers more easily than other types. Some people (especially those unaware of Wong’s 1994 swordfighting flick Ashes of Time) may be surprised that the director of such dreamy, lyrical romantic films as Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love would be interested in making a kung fu movie. I, on the other hand, was surprised that this martial-arts film was so much like his romances.
The film is based on the life story of Ip Man, the real-life Wing Chun master who lived through turbulent times, united his country’s disparate regional fighting styles, and ended up teaching kung fu to a boy named Bruce Lee. Wong’s film picks up in 1936; Ip Man (Tony Leung) is working out of the southern China city of Foshan when he’s tapped by an old northern master (Wang Qingxiang) to pass along the traditions to a new generation of fighters. Unlike other movies about Ip Man, the impetus for the plot doesn’t come from his martial-arts battles but rather from his unrequited love for Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the old master’s daughter who’s constrained by the taboo against women being kung fu masters.
The American version of this film has been recut to make the plot easier to follow, and while it contains some necessary information for viewers who aren’t versed in Chinese history, it lapses too often into over-explanation. More grievously, although Wong has recruited legendary fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping to stage the fights, his direction lacks the fluidity and spatial clarity of the other great filmmakers who’ve worked with Yuen (Ang Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Zhang Yimou, and Stephen Chow — what a list!).
Wong is more interested in burnished hues and surfaces so tactile that you can practically feel the rainwater splashing in your face when Ip Man takes on a rival master (Cung Le) in a flooded courtyard. The director turns Ip Man into a typical Wong romantic hero, alienated from his surroundings and stoically pining away for a love that can never be. If you’re looking for a slam-bang action thriller, you might be frustrated by Wong’s hazy longueurs and lingering close-ups of his stars’ faces, but this movie is recognizably in his distinctive style.
Even if Wong is not in the same league as the top kung fu directors, the fight sequences here are always gorgeously photographed, and they do offer up some treats, as when Ip Man spars with a string of masters conversant in the northern fighting styles. A dapper, Western suit-wearing assassin (Chang Chen) who wields a straight razor challenges Ip Man for the sole purpose of hearing the metal ring when Ip Man blocks his blow — how very Wong Kar-Wai of him! The high point comes during Gong Er’s showdown with her father’s killer (Zhang Jin) at a snowy railway station. With the combatants decked out in furs and the train whooshing by in the background, the scene plays out like a kung fu version of Doctor Zhivago. You didn’t know you needed that in your life, but that’s what The Grandmaster gives you.
Starring Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi. Directed by Wong Kar-Wai. Written by Wong Kar-Wai, Xu Haofeng, and Zou Jingzhi. Rated PG-13.