The Grandmaster is many years in the making, which is not surprising for any Wong Kar-Wai movie. With the character of Ip Man being hot property, two projects were announced around the same time, with the Mandarin Films version starring Donnie Yen and directed by Wilson Yip already into two films, and rumours are the making of the third in 3D is in the works. Granted those were the mainstream martial-arts with broad entertainment values, but if you're looking at something with a little more artistry, then The Grandmaster fulfills that yearning at many levels.
The long gestation in the production also allowed for the cast to dabble into the martial arts style that their characters are exponents in, and the result is very telling, since no amateur can execute the set action pieces, no matter how choreographed they can be by the best choreographers in the land, with that certain realism and style in movement. For a Wong Kar-Wai film that's granted to be rich in visuals, this becomes requisite, and the outcome is something that wows instantly, as already seen in some of the clips in the trailer. This marks only the second martial arts movie that Wong Kar-Wai has dabbled in (the first being Ashes of Time), and the battles here between exponents were already miles better.
While the film had started off as an Ip Man biography, that idea got broadly retained as Wong's research into the various martial arts form led him to include many more personalities, and grandmasters in their own right in the different styles of Kung-Fu, from the Northern to Southern fists that fans of the Wilson Yip Ip Man movies would already be well attuned to. As you would expect from the auteur director, this film has a philosophical leaning toward the essence and spirit of martial arts, hidden beneath the broad Ip Man biography used to tell events in chronological order, and the central story of succession to the Martial Arts Association chair, which spun off into seeking a worthy representative for the South, and classical martial arts theme and elemnts of betrayal, double-crossing, sacrifice, and that of vengeance.
And I'm pretty sure fans can identify their favourite Wong Kar-Wai moments and signatures that would inevitably creep into this film as well. Personall, as a fan of In the Mood for Love, I can't help but to have that broad smile when a character had to confess her turmoil to a crack in the wall, when dialogues centered around the availability of a ticket, that couple walking down a darkened street alley, and the notion of unrequited love being played out as the narrative went on, despite not being very strong, no thanks to swirling rumours that Wong had to shave off almost two hours of his original cut for the commercial theatres.
Tony Leung probably have it easiest here, with audiences instantly identifying with his Ip Man character. Those skeptics about his martial arts prowess can take note that personal training, and visual presentation by director Wong, ensures Ip Man comes off as pretty bad-assed when there's a need to spar, and keeping with some established traits that he doesn't need to execute the finishing blow if unnecessary. There's a little smirk of arrogance in this version, but all's good, save for the terribly reduced role that Song Hye-Kyo has as Ip Man's wife. Grossly underused is also Chang Chen, that despite top billing, he doesn't get more than a handful of scenes, with his Razor character the most undeveloped of the lot, and seen more as a sideshow to beef up the number of fight sequences. Then again, being a Wong Kar-Wai movie, characters like these do come and go in the narrative, although this one felt wasted for its potential.
Zhang Ziyi also held her own since her Gong Er character got thrust into the spotlight, which I believe will soon eclipse the other martial arts role she's more famous for in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and credit to her for lending elegance to her 64-hands Ba Gua movement, and inevitable successor to the legacy of her father (Wang Qingxiang) and the Gong Family, proud to keep her heritage intact. Her fight scenes probably stood out against that of Tony Leung's, and the sole sparring session they had together remains what would be the best in the film.
I'm not sure how anyone can complain about the lack of action sequences, because the film delivered as far as action goes, from the get go even to allay fears that this would be a moodier, talky piece. There's Cung Le opening the film with his battle against Ip Man, with the latter sharing his matter-of-fact philosophy, and that sparring session against many exponents in the central location of a brothel being a quick action montage of sorts, and what I appreciated a lot was the care taken to showcase the variation of styles that Chinese Kung-Fu is rich in.
But perhaps the more moving portion of the film, is again the What If moments played to pitch perfection. From their very first encounter and close quartered combat, Gong Er's face saving sparring with Ip Man brings about new found admiration between the two, yet it's something that cannot get onto any next level for her dogged determination for vengeance, which called for sacrifices on her part in order to exact revenge according to established rules. Their scenes together may be limited in quantity, but that's more than made up with the quality between both actors in their on screen charisma and chemistry, and that between their characters as well. It may have slowed down the pace, but probably brought out what Wong Kar-Wai is famous for, and expected in any of his films.
The Grandmaster is a gorgeous effort, chronicling the story of Ip Man from his prime 40s in the 1930s Foshan, his subsequent flight to Hong Kong and major events until his death in the 70s, with the Gong family saga playing in parallel to Ip Man's documentary-like story. As a fan of the director I would have preferred a longer cut to fill up the obvious narrative gaps in the timeline, but like most of the auteur's films, you're left to your own devices for that.