A visually astounding, but narratively jumbled twist on the classic martial arts formula.
Esteemed Chinese auteur Wong Kar Wai finally returns after a lengthy hiatus, now training his highly-stylised sights on a martial-arts legend, but sadly getting a little bit lost along the way. An Oscar-hopeful during its initial release in 2013, Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster chronicles the key moments in the life of esteemed martial artist Ip Man, from his emergence in the 1930s through to his move to Hong Kong and beyond. Most famously lauded as the man who taught the later legend Bruce Lee, Ip Man’s journey sees him tested both physically and mentally, clashing with numerous kung-fu masters and an unstable Chinese government, as he brings the art of Wing Chun into global practise.
With such a fascinating and far-reaching subject at its centre, one would expect a film such as this, by a director as highly-esteemed as Wong Kar Wai, to be nothing but an unwavering triumph. The eventual result however, is something that although visually stunning, ultimately falls a little short. At the centre of Kar Wai’s re-telling of the Ip Man legend is a series of beautifully rendered flashbacks, fitting together like shattered pieces of an insanely complex puzzle, and this is where The Grandmaster runs into its key flaw. Despite being insanely detailed and unquestionably gorgeous visually, the film’s narrative is not only messy but a lot of the time, also infuriatingly vague. Even with a handful of bizarrely-placed English-language titles to clear up some of the more confusing inconsistencies, it feels as if Kar Wai has taken on far too broad a task. There’s simply too much detailed material here to allow for an enjoyable experience.
This isn’t to say that The Grandmaster is completely joyless however. Long-time Wong Kar Wai collaborator Tony Leung folds into the period-setting marvelously, delivering a highly thoughtful take on a much-loved legend, whilst his co-stars prove to be equally as suited to the film’s highly emotional content. The real stars here though, are those hiding behind the cameras and sets. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd delivers some of the most breathtaking imagery of recent years, gifting the finished film with a level of precision and detail that forces it head-and-shoulders above other martial-arts epics of its kind.
Although its wandering narrative often proves rather irksome, ultimately, it’s these defining visual features which stand out most when recalling the film, proving The Grandmaster to be a definite achievement of sorts, if a muddled one at best.
The Grandmaster (2013), directed by Wong Kar Wai, is released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Metrodome Distribution, Certificate 15.