The Grandmaster

Directed By: Wong Kar-wai

Starring: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan, Song Hye-kyo, and Wang Qingxiang

I've been in need of a good martial arts flick for some time now.  2012 gave us such good films as The Raid: Redemption and The Man With the Iron Fists.  So far in 2013, we've had nothing to match these movies.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who's taken notice of this void throughout the year.  Well, things are finally looking up for those moviegoers who love their popcorn with a side of Kung Fu.  This weekend, The Grandmaster, Wong Kar-wai's latest film, hits theaters, and you martial arts lovers will be able to get some of the many flavors of Kung Fu as we explore the life of the legendary Ip Man, the Wing Chun grandmaster who taught Bruce Lee.

For the first forty years of his life, Ip Man (Tony Leung) leads a fairly simple life.  He begins his study of the martial arts at the age of seven, starts a family with his wife Cheung Wing-sing (Song Hye-kyo), and focuses on perfecting his Wing Chun.  In the 1930s, martial arts grandmaster Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), a master of Xingyi and Bagua, announces his retirement.  He's appointed his longtime apprentice Ma San (Zhang Jin) as his heir in the north.  He comes down to the town of Foshan to identify his successor in the south.  Having witnessed Ip Man in action defeating a dozen men including arch nemesis The Razor (Chang Chen), the retiring grandmaster believes that the young Wing Chun master is the right man to succeed him.  Gong Yutian's daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) thinks otherwise.

To determine his heir, Gong Yutian issues an open challenge to the south.  As part of this challenge, the masters of the south are to select a representative to face the grandmaster.  Though many masters jockey for the opportunity, Ma San bars them all.  As Gong Yutian hopes, the masters ultimately end up selecting Ip Man to challenge him.  After some preparation, the young Wing Chun master meets the retiring grandmaster for a match of wits.  In order to win, he must break the cake in Gong Yutian's hand.  After a fierce back and forth between two magnificent warriors, Ip Man does just that and prevails.  Unhappy about her father's defeat, Gong Er introduces the new grandmaster to her 64 Hands technique and leaves a lasting impression on him.  As time marches on, the Japanese invade China, and Ip Man is forced to flee to Hong Kong.  There, the grandmaster begins a martial arts school and reunites with friends and foes alike.

The Grandmaster is one impressive martial arts film.  Wong Kar-wai has crafted a really special story not just about the rise of Ip Man but also about the history of martial arts in the midst of the turbulent twentieth century.  As such, we see various styles of Kung Fu and are introduced to important historical figures.  Beyond the history, the esteemed director gives us a tale of two lovers never destined to be.  The film is a bit of a tragic romance with Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi participating in a never-ending game of love.  Beautifully shot with grainy cinematography reminiscent of the era and deftly performed by a talented cast, The Grandmaster is an excellent, more traditional martial arts film and a great way to close the summer.

You can't talk about a martial arts film without talking about the fight scenes.  All I can say is that fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping has done it yet again.  Each and every fight scene is incredibly artistic.  Quickly and furiously unfolding, each sequence is defined by both precision and ferocity as we watch Ip Man, Gong Er, and others pick their opponents apart limb from limb.  It's just beautiful, and it’s consistent with everything he’s done over the years in various other films.  As I watched the opening fight sequence with Ip Man taking on a dozen folks for example, I couldn't help but think of The Matrix Revolutions.  In the rain during the dark of night, Yuen Woo Ping has Tony Leung unleash a vicious flurry of debilitating kicks on his opponents that reminds me of that climactic final battle between Neo and Smith a decade ago.

Another thing I really appreciate in The Grandmaster is the exposure to various styles of Kung Fu.  Whether we're talking about the spade, pin, and sheath of Ip Man's Wing Chun, the sharp nature of The Razor's Baji, or the lethal nature of Gong Yutian's Xingyi and Bagua, Yuen Woo Ping thoroughly explores many of the techniques of martial arts.  Most impressively, we get to witness the 64 Hands of Bagua beautifully executed by veteran martial arts actress Zhang Ziyi.  Now that's something special you don't get every day.

By the end of The Grandmaster, I didn't realize two hours had passed.  I was engrossed in the story and not ready for it to end.  That's the mark of a good movie.  Wong Kar-wai and Yuen Woo Ping have given us a solid entry to the Kung Fu genre.  With great performances from the cast and some magnificent fight scenes, they deliver the martial arts film we've been wanting for quite some time.  The Grandmaster gets a 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.