In late Thirties Foshan, China, no martial arts master commands more respect than Wudang Boxing champion Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang). Having appointed student Ma San (Zhang Jin) his successor as leader of the Gong family, Yutian comes to believe dynamic Wing Chun genius Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) has the potential to take martial arts to the next level. His suspicions are confirmed in a secret bout where Ip Man bests a string of elite kung fu masters before besting Gong Yutian in a philosophical challenge. However, Gong's daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) believes Ip Man is unworthy. She challenges him to yet another secret duel that ends in mutual respect and the beginning of a unique, passionate yet chaste romance. Yet the tragic aftermath of the Sino-Japanese war, various blood feuds and the continuing struggle to uphold respective martial arts legacies take a toll on their star-crossed love.
True to form Hong Kong art-house auteur Wong Kar Wai took so long to complete his biopic of famed martial arts master Ip Man several other productions beat him to the punch. Most famously the Donnie Yen vehicle Ip Man (2008). By the time Wong's opus finally reached cinemas the first sequel to Yen's film had already been and gone along with two cash-ins from former schlockmeister turned mainstream filmmaker Herman Yau: The Legend is Born – Ip Man (2010) with Dennis To and Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013) starring an unlikely Anthony Wong, and several television mini-series. Nevertheless the strength of Wong's international reputation ensured The Grandmaster became the most high profile Ip Man film overseas although distributors the Weinstein Company removed twenty or so minutes from the international cut, re-edited scenes in a more 'linear' fashion and added explanatory text. While some critics consider the original one-hundred-and-thirty minute version superior, it is worth noting Wong Kar Wai himself valued the chance to tighten the narrative for non-Chinese audiences.
For his first kung fu film since the even more experimental Ashes of Time (1994) Wong proves less interested in mounting another Ip Man biopic than reflecting his familiar themes of romantic ennui and unspoken passion. Given his themes and and idiosyncratic style have proven something of an acquired taste in the west (take it from someone who saw him heckled at the London Film Festival screening of 2046 (2004)), The Grandmaster stands as arguably his most accessible meditation on love and longing despite the esoteric martial arts philosophy. "Life is bigger than winning or losing", Gong Yutian observes early on and the film goes on to illustrate this important lesson through the contrasted yet intertwined destinies of Ip Man and Gong Er. Their's is a love even more chaste than the thwarted passion between the protagonists in Wong's superb romantic drama In the Mood for Love (2000). Without sharing so much as a kiss, Ip Man and Gong Er flirt through fisticuffs, expressing love through an altogether different form of physical intimacy.
Masterfully choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-Ping, who also appears in a notable acting role, exquisitely photographed by Philippe Le Sourd, The Grandmaster reflects the idea that kung fu is philosophy made physical. A means to hone one's mind and body to deal with the obstacles life throws one's way. Key genre films from A Touch of Zen (1969) to Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) reflect this idea in an metaphysical style but as the message grew more visceral through the films of Bruce Lee and his latter-day disciples Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais it also became more literal and one-dimensional. With The Grandmaster Wong Kar Wai reconciles the physical with the spiritual. His is a pure cinema achieving a perfect synthesis of performance, editing, lighting and camera movement that does not so much stage an action sequence as dissect it into the fascinating minutiae of cause-and-effect. The film also shines a fascinating light on the politics behind martial arts societies portraying its sagely practitioners as men who look beyond the next bout to see kung fu as a constantly evolving spiritual entity. As years go by someone new must be there to take things to the next step.
Wong flips through the familiar episodes in Ip Man's life (his struggles during the Sino-Japanese war, loss of two daughters, battles with triad thugs, opening a new school in Fifties Hong Kong) but wisely sidesteps ground already covered by the Donnie Yen films. Although ostensibly the lead, the charismatic Tony Leung Chiu-Wai actually steps aside when a flashback suddenly draws things ten years back to tell Gong Er's side of the story. In a fiery, award-winning performance Ziyi Zhang finally earned the adulation from Chinese critics already accorded by her English and American fans after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Even more than Ip Man, Gong Er emerges a compellingly tragic character whose gender dictates her potential must go unfulfilled. A need to avenge an injustice sees her renounce marriage, children and eventually even martial arts in a life of fleeting triumphs before a sad descent into opium addiction and melancholy. Throughout this section the film achieves an epic sweep worthy of David Lean although interestingly lifts both Ennio Morricone music and a significant shot from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984).