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Staff Review: The Grandmaster

Originally posted on Saturday, 10 May 2014 at ROPL.org.

Directed by Wong Kar Wai
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Reviewed by Sarah Nagelbush, Adult Librarian

grandmaster01If you like kung fu movies, then you’ve probably heard of Bruce Lee – you might even have watched some of Lee’s movies. But you may not have heard about the man who taught Bruce Lee, Ip Man (often written as Yip Man). His rank was that of grandmaster and while he’s most famous in the west for being Bruce Lee’s teacher, he has quite a legacy in China.

Wong Kar Wai (known for movies such as In the Mood For Love, Chungking Express and Happy Together) finally released his long awaited Ip Man movie. The Grandmaster is a mixture of fact and fiction. Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays Ip Man, but there are a number of other characters, notably Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er, who are not real. Instead of a biopic of Ip Man, Wong Kar Wai does what he’s known for, creating a movie that is about the mood and feel of a specific time in history (1930s China) and a rather moving character study.

The Grandmaster features plenty of kung fu, but it’s less about the fighting itself than the art of fighting. The movie, while giving us some history of Ip Man, is more focused on showing us how people survived in 1930s China. We follow Ip Man as he must leave his wife and child and eventually go to Hong Kong. And while Tony Leung Chiu Wai acts superbly, the heat of the story belongs to Zhang Ziyi’s character. Gong Er is the daughter of another martial artist, a rival of Ip Man’s.

Her story is central and we flit in and out of it throughout the movie. Gong Er is beautiful, strong and a martial artist in her own right. But she is also a woman and thus she’s forced into sacrificing her life, basically. The scenes between Gong Er and Ip Man are full of emotional and sexual tension. Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi play well off of each other and Wong Kar Wai did an excellent job matching them up.

grandmaster02There are several fights, but the highly is Zhang Ziyi’s improbably battle next to a train. I will not spoil this scene, though. It’s best enjoyed within the context of the film. The secondary characters (Ip Man and Gong Er being our main characters) play out their own stories. My biggest complaint is that Wong Kar Wai made a new cut of the film, before it was ever released and Chang Chen’s character, “The Razor” Yixiantian, is barely in the movie (for a great Chang Chen film, also starring Tony Leung, check out John Woo’s four hour masterpiece, Red Cliff) .

Fan of Wong Kar Wai won’t be disappointed with The Grandmaster. But if you’re looking for something that focuses more on Ip Man and has a lot of kung fu, you might want to check out Donnie Yen’s Ip Man movie. But if you’re looking for something a little deeper, a little darker (in all senses of the word) and much more surreal, The Grandmaster is the right movie for you. Wong Kar Wai’s focus on the art of kung fu is what gives The Grandmaster it’s life, while Ip Man moves the story forward and Gong Er gives it heart. Check it out, it’s a beautiful movie, if nothing else.

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