If you’re not deep into martial arts cinema, you might have walked by the various movies titled “Ip Man” on the DVD shelves and mistaken them for Chinese or Japanese sci-fi or fantasy.
But the legendary Ip Man (also spelled Yip Man) is no invention of screenwriters. He’s a famous figure in Chinese martial arts, guardian of several martial arts styles and the man who taught Bruce Lee his chops.
“The Grandmaster” is the latest version of his life to make it onto the screen, a regal, majestic and downright arty take on this teacher, champion and philosopher whose life spanned much of the 20th century. Cowriter/ directorWong Kar Wai (“Chungking Express,” “In the Mood for Love“) goes for stately in this slow-moving action epic, sometimes at the expense of coherence and always in preference to pacing.
Fortunately, he has his muse, the great Tony Leung (“In the Mood for Love,” “Hero“, “Red Cliff“) in the title role, a magnetic screen presence who suggests mystery, romance and humility with just a faint, cryptic smile. His stillness seems just right for a character who can lick any ten guys in the room, and knows it.
The story follows Ip Man through World War II, when much of China was under siege by the Japanese, but whose martial arts aristocracy was still fretting over the divisions between assorted “Northern” styles and Ip Man’s simple, lethal “Southern” style.
The grandmaster of the North (Wang Qingxiang) is about to pass his mantle on to a protege (Zhang Jin). But Ma San is a hothead, which makes Master Gong regret that he cannot pass the leadership to his daughter, played by the serene and stunningly beautiful Zhang Ziyi (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“). Gong Er has mastered both the “64 hand” positions of her father’s Kung Fu, and the philosophy behind it.
Wong Kar Wai pays tribute to the martial arts of the past as Ip Man is tested by the other martial arts masters of the South before he must fight the best of the North in a friendly test of mastery.
There’s Sister Man, master of Bagua, and Master Yong of “Hung Gar” style. A little trash talk accompanies these tests.
“Your fireworks have fizzled,” Ip Man whispers as he puts on the Panama Hat he wears in between fights. He only needs three hand positions — spade, pin, sheath — to beat the best of the best.
Wong Kar Wai and his cinematographer — Philipe Le Sourd of “Seven Pounds” and “A Good Year” — shoot wondrous brawls in rain and snow, a funeral procession by a frozen lake, a bloodless beatdown in an elaborate brothel. It’s a gorgeous looking film (shortened for American release), whatever its other virtues and failings. Slow motion chops and kicks, delicate choreography (by Yuen Woo-Ping), extreme closeups of a match being lit, a cigarette burning, a button, torn from a coat that is symbolic of the life China’s wars interrupted dress the film up but slow it down. Lovely colorized newsreel footage and sepiatoned scenes that dissolve into still photographs capture the flow of history.
The story, touching on World War II, skipping over the Chinese Civil War and glossing over Ip Man’s reasons for fleeing to Hong Kong just as the communists took over the country, is more ambitious than streamlined. We lose track of Ip Man, here and there, to follow Gong Er’s sad, romantic story.
But it’s still a majestic version of a life story that merits this sort of treatment, at least within the world of martial arts. And the ageless Leung and Ziyi bring this stately, static film thrillingly to life just often enough to give Ip Man and his legacy his due.
“The Grandmaster” is rated PG-13 for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language.