By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Grandmaster is an amalgam of kung fu, romance, and biography. In that order.
A Hong Kong-Chinese martial arts thriller, this biopic is based on the life story of the Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man, best known as the master of the wing chun discipline (a style of kung fu that translates as “beautiful spring”) and the guy who trained a future international superstar.
Tony Leung portrays Ip Man, whose life is chronicled in flashbacks, most of them taking place between 1930 and 1952, from his relatively peaceful childhood in Foshan, through the Japanese occupation during World War II, and later in Hong Kong, where he struggles to provide for his family and trains a young boy who will one day star in such films as Enter the Dragon and Fists of Fury and become the icon of martial arts cinema — a fella by the marquee name of Bruce Lee.
But this is also a story of star-crossed love and unspoken affection, and facing off against Ip Man as the fictitious Gong Er is Ziyi Zhang (perhaps most familiar from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), as the daughter of another martial arts master and a martial artist herself, who challenges Ip Man in hopes of regaining her family’s honor as she seeks vengeance for her father’s death.
Stylist writer-director Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, My Blueberry Nights) provides visual elegance and stimulating combat, and lovingly shoots his two highly watchable stars, but the screenplay fails to develop the characters or relationships sufficiently.
That is, it’s a film to look at and appreciate, but not one to get lost in.
The kinetic and balletic action sequences are the irresistible elements here in the same way that splashy dance numbers characterize and define a musical comedy.
And as with many musical comedies, we find ourselves in scenes between these standalone set pieces merely waiting for the next one to arrive, as if we’re being confronted with considerable Plot Helper filler.
Of course, at least part of the reason for the narrative unevenness may be that the version of the film playing in the US has been severely truncated. Even though it still clocks in at over two hours, it’s reported to be nearly two hours shorter than the version playing on Hong Kong screens.
Regardless, with the fight footage taking up so much of the running time, martial arts aficionados will not be among those complaining.
So we’ll train 2½ stars out of 4 for a precisely choreographed martial arts drama that looks and moves better than it shows and tells. The Grandmaster isn’t grand or masterful, but at least its highlights are kung fu and not so far between.