March Issue 2013
Filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai’s aesthetics are second to none, and his latest offering, The Grandmaster, a biopic of martial artist Ip Man, is no different.
It would have been easy for Wong to take the conventional approach and give a circumstantial blow-by-blow account of Man’s life and of how he became a martial artist and perfected Wing-Chun, the form of self-defence he later taught Bruce Lee. But the film maker the takes a different route and present a biopic which not only talks about martial arts, but also takes a look at China’s troubled history and the superficiality of teaching martial arts; incidentally, too romance finds its way into the film.
Ip Man (Tony Leung) is a martial arts grandmaster from Foshan, in south China. In the very first scene he takes care of a mini-army of attackers and quickly establishes the fact that he’s the real deal. Gong Yutian, a master from the North, challenges Ip Man to a fight, which the latter wins by proving to be a more philosophically and psychologically stable opponent. This irks Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who wants to reclaim her family’s honour and challenges Ip Man to a fight, which he subsequently loses.
After that climactic fight, the film does lose a little bit of steam and we learn about the rest of Ip Man’s life through montages.
Later on in the film, Ip Man and Gong Er’s paths cross once again in a post-war period where a subtle, friendly-at-first romance is established through letters and glances. But Ip Man is now a married man with children. In any case, this is not the focus of Wong’s lens. The actual purpose of their meeting is to give us the film’s best scene, albeit through flashback. Gong Er recounts the tale of how she avenged her father’s murder in a stunning train station sequence, going against her father’s dying wish not to avenge his death.
Leung makes a decent Ip Man, but it is Zhang Ziyi who shines in her role as Gong Er.
The Grandmaster takes a look at what academic institutions teach and how their students apply that later in life. Wong’s maxim is simple: do, rather than talk. In that sense, The Grandmaster is inspirational and proves that it does indeed have a soulful interior to go with the stylish exterior.
Here’s one epic that looks beautiful in every frame thanks to the brilliant camera work rain drops fall in ultraslow motion, puddles of water reflect retreating horsemen and the choreography of the fight sequences is equally spectacular.
Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany