(director/writer: Wong Kar-Wei; screenwriters: Zou Jingzhi/Xu Haofeng/based on a story by Mr. Wong; cinematographer: Philippe Le Sourd; editors: William Chang Suk Ping/Benjamin Courtines/Poon Hung Yiu; music: Shigeru Umebayashi/Nathaniel Mechaly; cast: Tony Leung (Ip Man), Ziyi Zhang (Gong Er), Wang Qingxiang (Gong Yutian), Chang Chen (the Razor), Zhao Benshan (Ding Lianshan), Xiao Shenyang (San Jiang Shui), Song Hye Kyo (Zhang Yongcheng), Man Keung Cho(Cho Man), Zhang Jin (Ma San); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Mr. Wong/Jacky Pang Yee Wah; the Weinstein Company; 2012-Hong Kong-in Mandarin with English subtitles)

“Moody melancholy martial-arts costume drama, five years in the making, that thrives on great fight scenes.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wei (“Ashes of Time Redux”/”Chungking Express“/”Happy Together”), arguably one of the greatest modern directors, adapts with co-writers Zou Jingzhi and Xu Haofeng this moody melancholy martial-arts costume drama, five years in the making,that thrives on great fight scenes (choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, known in America for his work in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the dazzling photography is through the courtesy of Philippe Le Sourd, and its overreaching history lesson of the upheaval of China in the mid-1930s through the 1950s is better than reading Cliff Notes. Yet it’s flawed by some awkward moments trying to mix a story about the real-life legendary martial-arts teacher from Foshan, China, in the south, Ip Man (Tony Leung), an exponent of the Wing Chun method and best known as the teacher of Bruce Lee, with a tragic story of the fall of China’s last dynasty to the Japanese invaders in 1938. There’s a lot on the plate for the viewer to chew on in this classy visually pleasing epic, but depth of character isn’t one of them nor is getting emotionally involved with the characters. The action pic somewhat loses its way while making so many points about honor, discipline and keeping one’s sacred vows.

The best fight scene, with all being good, has Gong’s ill-fated daughter, Gong Er ( Ziyi Zhang), a doctor of medicine and kung fu disciple of her father, fighting in postwar China a fight to save her family honor from her father’s betraying inheritor, Ma San (Zhang Jin), and defeating him in a wintry setting by the railroad tracks with a nearby speeding train passing by, and thereby paving the way for Ip Man to open up his teaching to the masses from his new residence in Hong Kong.

If nothing else, we get Ip Man‘s own view toward the martial arts, as he states: “Don’t tell me how good your skills are, how brilliant your master is and how profound your school is. Kung fu can be explained by two words. One horizontal, one vertical — if you’re wrong, you’ll be left lying down. If you’re right, you’re left standing — and only the ones who stand have the right to talk.” So at least you get it straight from the master’s mouth what kung fu is all about. What else you take away from this hypnotic dreamy film depends on what you are looking for from a martial-arts pic. In my view, as not a fan of this genre, I found The Grandmaster better than the usual Hong Kong action pic because of its introspective approach and more artistic presentation.