Wong Kar-wai’s films are like no one else’s, even when they’re about the same thing as someone else’s. That’s well illustrated by the Hong Kong director’s visually opulent, characteristically moody “The Grandmaster,” which is based on the life of Ip Man.
The martial artist, best known in the West as Bruce Lee’s teacher, has been the subject of many movies. In fact, his story is currently being told in a trilogy whose final installment, “Ip Man: The Final Fight,” is available via video on demand.
Wong’s account of Ip’s life is not an action flick, although it has more fight sequences than most of his films. The director emphasizes his usual themes, including duty, exile, solitude and unrequited love. This is a familiar assignment for Tony Leung, who plays the central character; he embodied a similar stoic romanticism in such Wong classics as “In the Mood for Love.”
The story opens in 1936 in southern China, where kung fu aces from the north arrive to test their methods against the local style known as Wing Chun. Southerner Ip surpasses the northern champion, Gong Yutian, in a contest that’s more philosophical than physical. That settles nothing. Concerned more with suppressed emotions and historical ruptures than keeping score, the movie never anoints anyone as the definitive grandmaster.
Incensed that Ip bested her father, beautiful and impulsive Gong Er (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s” Zhang Ziyi) challenges the southerner. Staged in an elaborately appointed brothel, the fight quickly turns erotic. Gong and Ip make as much eye contact as anything else, and the contest ends not with blood but with chivalry. This exhilarating sequence binds the two permanently, if not happily, and is worth the movie’s price of admission.
Then World War II intervenes, and Gong Yutian’s top male disciple, Ma San (Zhang Jin), picks the wrong side. Gong Er, whose actions dominate the story for a time, seeks to discipline the traitor. Eventually, she moves to postwar Hong Kong, where she again encounters Ip.
Wong is known for multiple versions of his movies. A 130-minute edit of “The Grandmaster” opened the Berlin Film Festival in February, but the American release is 22 minutes shorter. Although cuts may have been made throughout the film, the World War II section feels the most truncated.
The movie holds together reasonably well, however, perhaps because it’s one of Wong’s most conventional narratives. That probably reflects the influence of Xu Haofeng, who co-scripted with Wong, or that the story is taken, however loosely, from real life.
Yet the rueful soliloquies, stately compositions, exquisite cinematography and dreamlike passages all identify “The Grandmaster” as a Wong Kar-wai film. The director took great efforts to be true to Chinese martial arts, but he did so without sacrificing his own distinctive vision.