The Grandmaster follows the life of Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who the film suggests may have been the greatest Chinese martial artist of his generation. From an early challenge from a Northern Chinese Grandmaster (Qingxiang Wang) through teaching in his own school in Hong Kong decades later to pass on his teaching to the next generation (including a young Bruce Lee), the script by director Kar Wai Wong and fellow screenwriters Jingzhi Zou and Haofeng Xu examines the major events and relationships of Ip Man’s life.
There are three different cuts of the film in existence. Sadly neither this Blu-ray nor DVD release include the original cut of the film released in Asia (which earned more critical acclaim than the versions made for U.S. audiences). As I haven’t seen the original cut I can’t compare the two, but I will note that some of the editing in this version, especially for the kind of philosophical and slow wide-sweeping tale the film strives to be, at times seems rushed and a bit muddled.
The story doesn’t offer us much insight into Ip Man’s homelife or his wife (Hye-kyo Song), but it does a much better job at focusing on the true love of the martial artist’s life – Wing Chun and the joy he took from his expert knowledge of the discipline. Ziyi Zhang is well-cast in the far-too-small supporting role of the only person we see ever best Ip Man in combat and whose friendship and affection he deeply desires.
Aside from the editing, which jumps around a bit both early and late in Ip Man’s life, The Grandmaster is an engaging tale both dramatically and with regards to its various martial arts sequences. For me the real stand-out of the film is the first meeting between Ip Man and Gong Er (Zhang) and the fight that follows which allows her to restore her family’s honor after Ip Man’s public defeat of her father. I also quite enjoyed both the montage of Ip Man meeting with various other Southern Chinese masters before his famous battle with the Northern grandmaster and a sequence later in the film where and older Ip Man finds respect in an equally-talented opponent.
The Grandmaster‘s other major strength, aside from the solid performance from its leading man, comes from the reflective nature of its semi-autobiographical approach that allows the movie to focus more generally on the way Ip Man saw both the world and his duty to his art rather than stringing together a list of specific events from his life. Some American viewers may find it frustrating as we see effects of big events, such as WWII and his relocation to Hong Kong, on his life, but not always in as much specific detail as Hollywood bio pics usually offer.
I would certainly recommend the film to those interested in its subject matter, although I’m not sure this is the best version available (even if it is the version presented by China for the Foreign Language Academy Award). I hope I can view the original version of the film to compare and decide if the minor, but still nagging, issues I have with the film are still present.
[Starz/Anchor Bay, Blu-ray $29.99 / DVD $24.98]