Rating: A story reliving the majesty of martial-arts while looking at the tragedy that befell China both before and after the Japanese invasion from 1938 through 1945.
Simply stated, Writer/Director Kar Wai Wong’s The Grandmaster is a frequently enthralling martial-arts film that periodically evolves into a tedious poetic opera. With stunning cinematography and a captivating musical score, I found myself forgiving its weak moments.
The movie is at its best telling the biographical story of the martial-arts legend Ip Man, the legendary Chinese figure who trained many students, one of them being Bruce Lee. Played with intense stoic power by Tony Leung, Ip Man was the Babe Ruth of his profession.
The story begins in 1936 in Southern China, where our hero lived with his dedicated wife and two young children. Showing little emotion other than a slight smile, he was as committed to his family as he was his profession. There are scenes of him fighting his way to the top of his craft, and those action sequences are magnificent.
Despite being financially well-heeled, his life comes apart with the Japanese invasion of 1938. His life is ruined, and he has to fight to simply make sure his family has enough to eat.
Complicating matters is his relationship with Gong Er, the daughter of the Chinese martial-arts master that Ip Man succeeded. Played by the stunning Ziyi Zhang, she was also a devastatingly talented martial-arts maven, and there is a fight between her and Mr. Leung that is visually breathtaking.
What emerges from this battle is the clear recognition that these two martial-arts experts are attracted to each other, and they toy with their future when the Japanese invasion brings all contact to a halt. Potential lovers who become strangers, their futures collide when the war ends.
When Ip Man leaves his family to try to earn a living for them in Hong Kong, further tragedy awaits when the Chinese bar re-entry into the country. While he deals with the devastating reality of never seeing his wife and children again, he discovers that Gong Er has pursued her career as a physician and is running a clinic in Hong Kong.
Though Ip Man and Gong Er are able to renew their friendship, their romance remains at arms length. They both know the strong bond between them, but he remains committed to his students as she seeks to get even with a martial-arts family member who betrayed everyone by cooperating with the Japanese during the war.
The battle that ensues is equal to any martial-arts scene in the history of film, though her victory leaves Gong Er in physical anguish. She never recovers, forced to become addicted to opium, and the last moments between her and Ip Man are as mesmerizing as they are heartbreaking.
It is ironic that a movie this visually enthralling and emotionally powerful could also leave you occasionally wondering, “Where in the hell are we going?” Though there are many of you who will get a bit antsy at times, you are likely to leave the theater with the unstated feeling that, “Lord, there were moments when I loved that film.”;