The Grandmaster

In the rain, kung-fu rain.
"In Martial Arts there is no right or wrong, only the last man standing."

I think you're thinking of Wrestlemania there, but okay, you write the taglines and I just read them. Hello friends! It's that time again, and today we'll be making the trip to the far east once again, as I scrutinize a big Hollywood stab at kung-fu. In this particular instance I'm talking about The Grandmaster, the latest in a long line of adaptations about Ip Man, the master of Wing Chun who has been sensationally popular in cinema (at least in part because he was the teacher of Bruce Lee). This particular film focuses on different aspects of Ip Man's life than previous films, being a bit more reflective and philosophical. I'd actually seen Ip Man, which mostly focuses on him fighting the invading Japanese, and like so many movies takes a lot of liberties for the sake of dramatic effect. The Grandmaster does that too, but the focus is completely different. This film is almost biographical in format, following Ip Man from young life briefly, until the point when he succeeds his mentor as a grandmaster of Wing Chun in is own right. Along the way obviously people fight each other, and pit their varied styles of kung fu against one another in typical fashion, as an attempt to prove supremacy.

Here have a biscuit, and A RIDDLE.
The movie is about a bit more than that though. I would be hesitant to call this strictly a kung-fu movie on account of there isn't as much kung-fu as one might expect (that's not to say there's a limited amount of action) and while martial arts are of central importance, the actual fighting is not. The pacing of the movie is somewhat different from a regular kung-fu movie as well. Instead the film is a somewhat sprawling character drama, focused not just on Ip Man but also on the circumstances surrounding his life, and also Gong Er, the daughter of the Wudang boxing grandmaster (portrayed by Zhang Ziyi who you probably would know best from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). These two cross paths several times over the course of the film, and face off as equals. In some ways, Gong Er's story is actually a bit more interesting than that of Ip, who is essentially never beaten at any point (except by Gong during an extremely technical bout between the two of them).That said, the film is a aesthetically adept and attractive biography/drama.

You know you're jealous of her big coat.
What it possesses in scope and setting it somewhat lacks in coherence however. The problem with shooting a highly stylized film that takes place over dozens of years in the space of two hours is that you end up trading a lot in the way of detail and narrative focus. Generally speaking a film will focus on a particular epoch or event (much as the very excellent kung-fu movie Ip Man did) and accept the limitations of the form. This film doesn't accept that limitation, and as a consequence trades off somewhat in regards to its pacing and the impact of its narrative. Some of the most gripping moments in the movie are presented as flashbacks, which reduces the dramatic tension somewhat (if a person is telling the story of a past battle, we can assume they probably didn't lose and die right?). So while this movie is very ambitious, it is more successful in some ways than in others. I really think I would have liked to see it commit more to a particular storyline or genre, rather than trying to be a kung-fu drama that encompasses the entire (quite long) life of its central character.

Everybody really WAS kung-fu fighting!
Still it's a pretty enjoyable movie to watch, if just for the excellent choreography and cinematography (and I don't want to belittle the plot too much, it was by no means terrible). I had kind of hoped it would be better, but I suppose at this point any movie that could be great about Ip Man has already probably been made about 50 or so times. It is worth a watch if you are inclined, but I think it won't stick with me as one of the more standout martial arts films I have seen (and I've seen more than a couple for sure).

That's it for today! Join me next week for a cool reception, and maybe some tanks.

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