Filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s “Grandmaster,” contrary to what the title suggests, is not exactly a biopic of the legendary Chinese martial artist Ip Man (1893-1972), the grandmaster of Wing Chun who famously taught Bruce Lee.
Rather, it is Wong’s poignant, visually stunning tribute to what is now gone ― China before the Japanese invasion and the glory years of Chinese martial arts in the 1930s. Though it features the life of Ip, the film focuses on martial arts itself rather than the individual. What dominates this film is a deep sense of nostalgia and remorse ― it is not a heroic action drama.
The film follows the life of Ip (played by Tony Leung), from his peaceful years in the 1930s in his hometown Foshan, Guangdong Province in southern China, to his later years in Hong Kong. In the beginning of the film, he is happily married to his gracious and quiet wife Cheung Wing-sing (played by Korean actress Song Hye-kyo) and the two have children.
|A scene from “The Grandmaster.” (CGV Movie Collage)|
While Ip is training in Wing Chun with his master Chan Wah-shun (1836-1909), he and his fellow southern masters receive a visit from Gong Yutian, a martial arts master from northern China. Gong, who is about to retire from his leading position, is the grandmaster of his revered 64 hands technique, known for its splendid skill and poised postures.
Representing southern masters, Ip agrees to accept Gong’s challenge, which he wins to Gong’s surprise. He later runs into Gong’s fierce and strong daughter Gong Er (impressively played by Zhang Ziyi), who visits Ip to regain her father’s honor.
The two form a special bond through an intense fight ― “whoever breaks a piece of furniture in the room during the game will be the loser” ― and part ways, Gong Er the winner.
After that one encounter, Ip and Gong Er’s stories don’t entwine much. Their lives are brutally affected by the Japanese invasion and war, causing them to suffer a series of losses. Ip loses his house to the Japanese, and subsequently loses many things he considers important to the war.
Gong Er, on the other hand, loses her beloved father to one of his followers, who becomes a Japanese collaborator during the occupation. She voluntarily gives up her personal happiness to plot a very vicious revenge against him.
Their exceptional martial art skills and what they learned from their masters ― “a knife must be used to save lives, not to kill” ― don’t help them much when enduring the turbulent period and the losses. The skills don’t bring Ip enough money to make a living. What eventually fills the screen is the characters’ sense of loneliness and remorse, complemented by Wong’s impeccable mise-en-scene.
Ip and Gong Er’s relationship ― the two hardly see each other throughout the movie, but their bond is obvious ― is reminiscent of the characters in Wong’s 1994 film “Ashes of Time” and his famous 2000 romance “In the Mood for Love.”
One of the most beautiful achievements of the film is the scene where Ip and Gong Er engage in a fight for the first and the last time, Ip using Wing Chun of the south and Gong Er using the 64 hands technique of the north. The scene is like a dance performance, extremely poised, unusually elegant and strictly controlled, yet almost sensual. And just like any theatrical event on stage, and a lot of things in life, their one-time fight is unique, singular and unrepeatable. The rest of the movie pays tribute to that very moment, when the two were at their happiest, and other events of the times that cannot be replicated today.
A CGV Movie Collage release, “The Grandmaster” opens in theaters in Korea on Aug. 22.
By Claire Lee (email@example.com)