The Weinstein Brothers would have you believe that The Grandmaster is nothing less than a non-stop thrill ride boosting heavy martial arts action, intense death-defying sequences, and a killer soundtrack with copious amounts of RZA.
The Grandmaster, however, is not that movie and contains almost none of those things. I cannot stress that enough.
Director Kar Wei Wong’s vision is more of a beautiful, introspective biopic as opposed to a ramped-up ,wire-fu filled action film.
The Grandmaster is merely the latest movie that tells the story of legendary martial artist Ip Man, who successfully opened the doors of martial arts secrets to outsiders, single-handedly preserved and popularized Wing Chun’s martial arts style, and (most famously) trained Bruce Lee.
His story has been successfully adapted to film before, but Wong’s adaptation aims to be a lot less over the top and much more biographical than others — an honest deconstruction of the mythology of the man who brought martial arts and Bruce Lee to the world. In execution, Wong falls short of that goal, creating more of a history report about Ip Man than an actual movie.
The Grandmaster briefly touches on the early events in Ip Man’s life before launching very quickly into a cliff notes version of the rest of it. His meeting with the Gong Yutain, the Grandmaster of all martial arts styles in the North, and his plan to unify it with the Southern schools is dealt with and resolved in almost the first twenty minutes.
The film briefly touches on the devastation caused by the beginnings of the second Sino-Japanese War in 1938 before shifting to Ip Man’s years of teaching schools in Hong Kong in exile, and his reunion with Gong Yutain’s heir and only child, Ma San.
A lot of story happens in a relatively short amount of time, and cue cards are used sporadically throughout the movie in place of just tighter writing to catch you up to speed on the time skips. So little time is spent developing any of the characters in Ip Man’s life beyond the superficial, and it’s very possible to walk away from this movie not knowing much about him, either.
Where The Grandmaster succeeds is in its cinematic delivery. The camera work is simply superb, and the fight choreography stands out as something that’s rarely been seen in hundreds of other martial arts movies. Numerous styles of kung fu is realistically showcased with unique camera angles and slow motion effects that give the fight scenes the serene feeling of watching a dance.
As a storytelling piece, The Grandmaster brings little to the table. It’s a pretty film that’s shot well and clearly shows a lot of love and reverence for the source material, but not enough is done to explore Ip Man’s story.
There’s certainly enough here to appeal to the art house film crowd and martial arts aficionados. But those looking for a bit more besides a pretty fan portrait of Ip Man are better off looking elsewhere.