I am torn with The Grandmaster. On one hand, legendary director Wong Kar Wai has crafted a visual masterwork with style to spare. On the other hand, The Grandmaster lacks any narrative through line and muddles any possibility of a compelling story. The story of Ip Man has been told before, and while it has never been covered with such visual flair, other versions were far more effective at presenting his life in concise ways. I say all of this with a full admission that I watched the American version of The Grandmaster that was controversially and significantly cut from the original Chinese release. I do not know how many of the problems I had with the film are addressed in the full release, but I am reviewing the film as I saw it.
The Grandmaster is the story of Ip Man, who made Wing Chun accessible and, perhaps most famously, taught Bruce Lee. Ip Man lived, studied, and taught during incredibly tumultuous times in China. If you are unfamiliar with Ip Man’s life history The Grandmaster is not the film to start with. The story is confusing and disjointed with much of the exposition merely being loose threads to string together the visual action pieces. However, those visual action pieces are a wonder to behold.
From the very beginning Wong Kar Wai makes his style felt and the opening fight scene in the rain is gloriously staged and shot. Fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping brings his extensive expertise to this style-fest and all of the martial arts are immaculate. The juxtaposition of crisp and sharp movements with the overall fluidity of motion is highlighted throughout, but the beauty of the action is not enough to hide the narrative problems forever. The story comes to a near halt about three quarters through with the main character fading into the background for much of the final act. It is a confusing choice and no matter how gorgeous the scenes are in the final act, one must wonder why they are being shown. The focus of the plot seems to shift back and forth for no reason which makes any overall theme cloudy at best. The ending of the film does not seem to belong to the beginning.
The acting from all major characters maintain a flat lined level of competency. This is not necessarily a negative, but further promotes the idea that The Grandmaster is Wong Kar Wai’s vision above all else. The martial arts fight scenes are breathtaking with a graceful and vibrant style and left me bordering on hyperbole trying to describe them. The story lacks any cohesiveness and is confusing at best. Two sides to the same film. One side is brilliant, the other is lacking. The fault lies in the storytelling and editing. Whether the blame is on Wong Kar Wai or Harvey Weinstein I am not sure. Grade: B-