Review: The Grandmaster (2013)

Review by: Mountain Monkey
SCUM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Since Donnie Yen kicked the living daylights out of the Japanese in Ip Man (2008), we’ve seen a flurry of Ip Man-inspired movies, some good and some not so good. Thankfully, Wong Kar-wai’s contribution to this fast growing Ip Man micro-genre is an overwhelmingly positive one, and adds to his status as Hong Kong’s premier film auteur.

Instead of ageing studs like Donnie Yen or Wilson Yip (both of whom Monkey Fist simply adores), Ip Man is played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Followers of Hong Kong cinema will know that any movie with Tony Leung in it will be sensitively acted with less emphasis on executing perfect roundhouse kicks. The Grandmaster is no exception, with Wong Kar-wai’s favorite leading man delivering the goods in terms of smoky charisma. Surprisingly, Leung’s fight scenes are both stylish and exciting — martial art fans will not be disappointed, though in terms of action alone, the movie does not live up to Donnie’s blistering moves in the original Ip Man.

Style and substance -- Tony Leung as Ip Man

Style and substance — Tony Leung as Ip Man

What The Grandmaster delivers though is a film of great cinematic style, rather than a straight-forward action movie.

Tony Leung is perfectly complemented by Zhang Ziyi, who plays the role of Gong Er, daughter of northern China’s preeminent martial artist, Gong Yutian. Knowing that old age does not deal kindly with martial artists, Gong Yutian passes on his skills to Gong Er, who inherits his ’64 hands’ technique. Gong Er demonstrates her prowess by defeating Ip Man in a duel, something that enamors Ip Man to her, despite him being a married man. Unfortunately, the Japanese invade China and the two only ever meet again in post-war Hong Kong, and under tragic circumstances.

Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) prepares herself for a showdown

Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) prepares herself for a showdown

Gong Yutian’s rogue disciple, Ma San (played by Zhang Jin), inherits his master’s other moves and betrays his master by collaborating with the Japanese occupiers. An epic battle for revenge is thus set between daughter and ex-disciple, and is the dramatic centerpiece of the movie.

Thus, The Grandmaster does not revolve around Ip Man alone, and involves grandmasters from other martial art traditions – this is a welcome respite from the other Ip Man-focused movies, and despite having less action scenes, is beautifully-crafted movie with an utterly engaging plot.

The Grandmaster is Wong Kar-wai’s most accessible movie to date, and probably his most financially successful. With yet another Ip Man movie in the pipeline (Ip Man: The Final Fight, directed by Herman Yau), The Grandmaster will no doubt be remembered as the artistic high point of the lot.

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About The Author

Mountain Monkey's cozy childhood afternoons with Thunderbirds were forever shattered by a creepy matinee, 'The Creature from the Black Lagoon'. Things were never quite the same for Mountain Monkey, who developed a fascination for the esoteric side of cinema from a worryingly young age. These days, Mountain Monkey would rather be catching up with some shut eye and the latest Criterion Collection release, but the SCUM mission has come calling. Ohm...

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