Ip Man's story begins in 1936 Foshan, in Southern China. Northern-based Gong Yutian, desirous of carrying on martial arts at the highest level, seeks to bridge the north/south division in fighting styles. Near retirement, Gong invites the best southern fighter to a contest that Ip Man wins, to the dismay of Gong Er, Gong Yutian's daughter. The 1938 Japanese invasion shatters normal life; eight years of brutal war follow. Fast forward to 1945, moving into the '50s in Hong Kong with oaths, revenge, more dazzling contests, and heartbreaking romantic longing. On screen titles add information at regular intervals, along with Ip Man's informative voiceover.
Twenty minutes shorter than the original two hour ten minute release in China, the story shortchanges some details and elides some events. But, clearly, "The Grandmaster's" appeal rests on its mesmerizing, haunting visuals and its philosophical meditation on honor, self-sacrifice, and discipline. This extended to the actors. To play Ip Man, the great Tony Leung Chiu-wai reportedly studied four hours a day for a year. Leung's breathtaking physical prowess takes center stage in Yuen Woo-ping's stunning choreography (he also choreographed "The Matrix's" action scenes) and Philippe Le Sourd's gorgeous cinematography.
Equally captivating as Gong Er, Zhang Ziyi delivers a performance as charismatic in her quiet, still moments as she is in motion. She focuses on the ideals of kung fu as well, noting that mastery has three stages: being, knowing, doing. We see and learn that, "A true martial artists doesn't live for, he simply lives," as "The Grandmaster" shows. Notably, Wing Chun master Ip Man proudly claimed Bruce Lee among his legendary students.
We might say of Wong Kar-Wai that he doesn't anchor his films in narrative drive. Instead, he invites the viewer to surrender to the exquisite experience of all-encompassing sounds and images. He is, for my money, another grandmaster. Primarily in Mandarin and also in Cantonese and Japanese, all with English subtitles. At a Landmark Theatre.