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The Grandmaster: Epic, heart-melting, oh and there's lots of kung fu

The long-awaited dramatisation of Ip Man's life's well worth the wait

Film Review The Grandmaster is a tale so loosely based on the actual life of famed kung fu master Ip Man that it belongs more properly in the stable of martial arts fables such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers.

Ip Man (Tony Leung) gets ready for a rain-soaked fight.

Though no one flies through the air (entirely) in Wong Kar-wai’s interpretation of Ip Man’s life, like those movies, this film is more about the philosophies behind kung fu and the traditions of China than about a real man.

It helps that Ip Man’s life spans a tumultuous time in the history of China, taking place as the traditions of kung fu are threatened by both modernity at the turn of the century and then by the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938.

At times, the film is almost like a high-production-value History Channel biography, with long voice-overs detailing historic details and the actors posing for photographs that are then faded into the sepia-toned images of the time.

In Wong Kar-wai’s vision of his life, Ip Man, played by frequent Wong collaborator Tony Leung, is born to a wealthy family in Foshan in southern China and spends the first forty years of his life in wealth and privilege, devoted to learning the Wing Chun style of kung fu.

The end of this era is marked by the arrival of northern Grandmaster Gong Yutian, who comes south to celebrate his retirement with his appointed heir Ma San and his daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang). He challenges Ip Man to a fight that sparks conflicting emotions and heated battles among the kung fu champions (including Gong Er, who has been robbed of her place as his heir due to her gender) that last through their lives until Gong Er and Ip Man meet again in Hong Kong in 1950.

During that time, war changes China completely. Ip Man loses his family and his fortune and ends up as the head of a martial arts school in Hong Kong, cut off from his loved ones by the closing of the border with his homeland in 1951.

Interspersed into these moments in history and Ip’s life are beautifully staged and occasionally brutal kung fu fights, stylised in heavily falling rain or up and down the stairs of a lavishly ornate brothel known as the Golden Pavilion. There’s even a fight in the snow featuring Gong Er that echoes Ziyi Zhang’s turn in House of Flying Daggers, although the presence of a speeding train updates it slightly from the mythical.

Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang)

As seems to be the tradition in these movies, it’s also up to the luminously beautiful Zhang to provide the emotional heart of the film, crying single tears across her otherwise composed face so tragically that your Reg hack was hard pushed to choke back the emotion. Ip Man is the calm, measured figure, who uses the philosophies of kung fu to remain standing when his whole world falls apart.

The film contrasts this with the insatiable thirst for victory evidenced by both Zhang’s Gong Er and Ma San, as well as other masterful martial artists Ip Man meets.

Despite the apparent disparity in storytelling, running from historical biopic, to dramatic interpretation, all the way to myth-making fiction, The Grandmaster works well. The fight scenes are outstanding demonstrations of prowess, evidencing the years the actors spent training for their roles. The philosophising and history lessons are evenly balanced with the drama. Thus, kung fu and everything else deftly comes together into one film, rather than feeling disconnected.

The film has famously been held up in development, since it was first announced in 2008, partly because Tony Leung broke his arm while training in Wing Chun, and also because of the extensive research and training that Wong wanted to undertake. The result is worth the wait. This is a kung fu film that is as moving as it is heart-pumpingly exciting and a fitting homage to the grandmaster who trained Bruce Lee. ®

Ip Man (Tony Leung) gets ready for a rain-soaked fight.Title The Grandmaster
Director/Writer Wong Kar-wai
Cast Zhao Benshan, Chang Chen, Tony Leung, Song Hye Kyo, Xiao Shenyang, Ziyi Zhang
Release date 5 December (UK) / 23 August 2014 (US)
More info Official movie site

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