‘The Grandmaster’ Review: Martial Artistry Sublime in New Kung-Fu Film

August 23, 2013 Updated: August 25, 2013

Bruce Lee is Kung fu-Elvis. He’s as iconic now as he was in 1974. We know Bruce. We own Bruce. Who taught Bruce? Kung fu grandmaster Ip Man. 

Although two films have already been made about Ip Man, Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster,” starring Tony Leung, Chiu Wai and Zhang Ziyi, should make “Ip Man” a household name, albeit with nowhere near the mega-wattage of pupil Bruce Almighty.

The story takes place between 1930 and 1952. It begins with the story of Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), a renowned northern kung fu master who’s ready to retire. 

Gong journeys south to hold a ceremony naming his star pupil, Ma San (Zhang Jin), as new grandmaster. He tells the southern schools to pick their best man for a north-south face-off.

Master Gong also has a daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), a supreme master in her own right. But women weren’t allowed into the martial arts man-club in those days. 

Father Gong wants daughter Gong to be a doctor, but she’s quite lethal, having grown up “to the sound of bones breaking.” 

As they say, “Talent will out.”

The south picks Ip Man to represent them. To help him prepare (in what is perhaps the film’s most entertaining portion), highly accomplished masters from different schools impart to him the essence of their unique practices. 

Kung fu masters always withheld their best moves. For example, Gong Yutian united the northern styles of Xing Yi and the deadly Bagua, but only showed his students Xing Yi. 

We learn how one style contains five concepts, while another style might contain six or seven things. The simplest things are always the most powerful. Ip Man’s Wing Chun style has three. 

But, in the end, there are only two things: vertical and horizontal. He who wins is vertical; he who loses is horizontal.

Deadly days, dangerous martial artists everywhere, one always has to be vigilant. And yet, throughout, Ip Man embodies great moral stature.

Ip Man’s face glows with warmth, humility, and compassion. One senses Tony Leung to be a deeply spiritual man. Or at least a very good actor.

At one point Ip is challenged by an opponent whose specialty is the straight razor. Possibly an assassin, The Razor subtly warns him of his metallic prowess. Ip Man picks up a couple of steel nails, beams beatifically, and says, childlike, “Let me try.” 

The pure, ringing tone made by attacking razor meeting blocking nail is enough for The Razor to know he’s met his match and then some. He’s dreamt of that ringing tone. It’s difficult to find an equal at that level, and so, in a way, we see how opponents are like great friends.

Also wonderful is a scene involving the art of war hidden within the simple offering and lighting of a cigarette by an old tai chi master. In that act alone, the former powerhouse recognizes Ip’s other worldly abilities, and longs for younger days when he would have been fit enough for a true challenge.

Finally, the showdown: Master Gong against Ip is a tremendous fight, a matching of wits, a physical chess, a brilliant subtlety. He challenges Ip to break the biscuit he holds in his hand.

Daughter Gong is hot-headed, although Dad has told her to master her temper, take a step back, and see the long perspective.

She challenges Ip—his Wing Chun against her Sixty-four Hands. 

Since they fight in a fancy brothel (apparently lots of martial matches occurred in brothels), he offers her the win if he breaks anything, saying, “Kung fu is about precision.” Their fight is a love affair.

Meanwhile, Ma San, having been banished by Gong Yutian for having too much selfish ambition, has dishonored the family. 

Gong Er fights him, reclaims the familial honor, goes home, spits up blood, takes opium, and stops seeing patients. 

She vows before Buddha to have no children and never to teach martial arts.

Ip dreams of Gong Er, he wants to see Sixty-four Hands again. He wants her to come out of retirement and save the gift of her martial art. She replies that no gift is higher than heaven, and that while others may choose to live without rules, she does not. 

In a heartbreaking conversation, Gong Er suggests they suspend the game of chess between them, saying that it doesn’t matter that Sixty-four Hands disappears, and that she has already forgotten it. 

We learn she died in 1953, having never lost a fight. And that she kept her vows to Buddha to the end.

The cinematography is wonderful, breathtaking, the martial arts satisfying. All actors were required to study kung fu for three years prior to filming. 

There’s perhaps a bit too much slow-motion shots of rainfall, slow wringing of trickling washcloths in the bath, too much slow-mo in general, accompanied by ponderous piano playing.

The pageantry, beautiful set pieces, and authentic, intricate costumes seem inspired by Shen Yun, the world-traveling performance that’s currently reviving the lost 5,000 years of true Chinese culture. 

The ever beauteous Zhang Ziyi makes Mandarin sound exquisite.

The narrative is somewhat problematic, and the cuts and editing suffer due to the film originally being four hours long, and needing to be too-quickly chopped down for public consumption.

The thing about wuxia films (martial arts hero films) that some object to is that there’s always mystical-magical stuff happening. Masters fly around, kick dents in iron railings, pinch stones into dust, and send out shockwave-like energy. 

Why this fairytale nonsense? It’s not nonsense. The magical things are artist renditions of the super-normal abilities that can be developed through years of devoted martial arts practice. 

Those shockwaves and the ability to smash stone are visualizations of the indescribably powerful but elusive gong energy. 

Super high-level martial arts utilize this mystical gong energy—mystical only because it’s forbidden to be shown to the public. 

Everyone’s heard of “chi” energy by now. Kung-fu in China is really “gongfu.” 

The eclectic Jeet Kune Do style Bruce Lee developed after jettisoning Ip Man’s Wing Chun kung fu is arguably the basis of the now hugely popular modern mixed-martial arts (MMA), but there’s no gong involved in this. 

Gong only develops when the art form remains pure, and most importantly, when the spiritual aspect of the artist’s moral standard is retained or improved—also a form of purification.

See Ip Man fight Gong Yutian and Gong Er with gong fu. 

Bruce Lee might be more famous, but his teacher Ip Man’s was the real-deal Gong Show. 

4 stars

Director: Wong Kar Wai
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Song Hye-kyo
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Rating: PG-13

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