Set in 1940s Fushan, Canton province, the martial arts community, lead by Gong Yutian from the north, is retiring and holds a challenge to select an heir to bring southern martial arts to the north. The southern community elects Ip Man, the shining newcomer, up for the challenge. Ip Man develops a friendship with Gong’s daughter, Gong Er. The story crosses two decades as Ip Man and Gong Er stand the tests of life. The Japanese Army invasion of Fushan forces Ip Man into poverty and he resettles in Hong Kong. A mutiny within the Gong family sets Gong Er on a quest for revenge. In a time where age-old tradition is being replaced with modernity, how much can one uphold their principles?
The plural in the title tells it all. It’s the story of GONG Er (ZHANG Ziyi) that provides all the drama and melodrama. I confess that I do not know if she is real-life but even she is, there is far more scope for artistic creativity in designing the character than Grandmaster Ip, for obvious reasons. In the movie, she is the only martial artist who is Ip’s equal (even with a hint of being a tad better). Her drama comes with a treacherous student who murders her father. While both Leung and Zhang have experience in action movies, they are not Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh. Still, we have good action sequences thanks to first class choreographed and editing. We witness the years that chronicle their transformation. This journey ends with the passing of Gong Er and eventually, Mr Yip in 1972.
Taking a step back, I suspect that the producers and director seemed to want to break away from the proved formula of story-telling about Ip Man and Wing Chun, and took risk in the script and even cinematography. However, I see traces of Zhang Yimou in the technique, which I neither am opposed to nor strongly encouraged. However, I think the director OVERDID on the special and visual effects, because, in my opinion, he may have wanted every scene and frame to be visually stunning. While there are many scenes (including the special effects) that are indeed very captivating – e.g. those at the train station involving the duel of Gong Er and San – these effects quickly became a major muddling distraction for me, to an extent that I felt like the film has overrun in length in its appeal to audience.
More French than many of the french movies I have watched, yet Oriental to its core. To put it that way, I failed to see the big picture like the old Master in the movie did. But philosophy aside, it is story telling and imagery in a whole different level. Wong’s Grandmaster wins in spirit, in style more than in physique and awards. With long research and a semi-documentary style film-making, Wong has made a film about kung fu in its naked self, i.e. in blood, in sweats and in tears (hard work, stamina, suffering, sacrifice and national / world heritage). I prefer the title “Grandmasters” instead of “Grandmaster” as the film is more about an age represented by many martial artists and styles in kung fu depicted and above all in Ip Man. The historical and political context could have been interesting but was sidelined. All in all, and very sad to report, I walked away underwhelmed.