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The Grandmaster

The story of the famous Ip Man, who made Wing Chung martial arts famous and who also trained Bruce Lee. Yes, there have been other recent films about him, most notably a pair starring Donnie Yen; this biography features Tony Leung in the titular role, with Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Memoirs of a Geisha, etc.) in the major supporting role of Gong Er, whose familys northern style of martial arts is a rival to Ip Mans southern style. Theres also a subplot about a brutal martial artist named The Razor (Chen Chang), but the bulk of the movie centers on the rivalry between Ip Man and Gong Er, including long stretches where they have little to do with one another. The storys largely set in the Thirties and Forties and as such the growing rivalry between northern and southern kung fu artists is overshadowed by the Japanese invasion and occupation. The visuals are sumptuous and beautiful, featuring gorgeous landscapes and detailed cityscapes. Theres a brothel, the Golden Pavilion, that serves as neutral ground for the rival schools of martial artists, and its every bit as heavenly as wed expect. That lushness is later contrasted by wartime scarcity and post-war poverty, and theres a message about how the martial arts schools used to be revered and special and are reduced to small honorless shop fronts by the end. Both Leung and Zhang are very strong here, which is no surprise; theyve played these sorts of roles before (Zhang seems destined to play the unhappy love-starved kung fu badass girl) and their chemistry helps propel the film. But the story moves forward only slowly, punctuated by the occasional balletic kung fu duel; this is more of a drama with a teensy bit of action on the side, so if youve come looking for a kung fu movie, youll likely be disappointed. This is a movie about kung fu, not a movie drenched in it. Also, the subplot with Razor never really goes anywhere, and Ip Mans wife, so central to the first part of the movie, vanishes when the war starts (this is explained away in a voice over, but still). Like most Hong Kong historical movies, theres no happy ending awaiting our protagonists (at least here they are mostly basing that on fact), so the second half of the film is a gradual descent into depression which most HK viewers should be used to. Despite a strong visual sense and a few really beautiful scenes, I really cant recommend this film for those who arent already inclined to see it, and then you wouldnt need my recommendation anyway. September 23, 2013