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Movie Review: 'The Grandmaster'

The Grandmaster

Starring Tony Leung Zhang Ziyi
Directed by Wong Kar Wai
Rated PG-13

2046 was the first movie I had seen from director Wong Kar Wai.  It was gorgeously shot, epic in it’s scope and turned me into a fan right away.  His next movie, My Blueberry Nights, a much smaller film than 2046, wasn’t that great.  But it was then that I went back and saw his back catalogue of films like Chunking Express and In the Mood for Love, etc.  Those films only reiterated why I liked Kai and his style so much.  But I have to admit, when I started seeing trailers for his newest movie The Grandmaster, I wasn’t exactly pumped for what I might see. Maybe it was, for whatever odd reason, I felt the trailers looked too much like a mash up between The Matrix and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but I hesitant…silly me.

As we know, trailers, when effective, only tell a small part of the story, which is the case with The Grandmaster.  A movie that sits with you long after you’ve seen it, the notion that this movie is all about grandeur is simply wrong.  It’s the smaller moments in this film that sit with you.  Sure, you will see choreography that might be some of the best since a little movie called The Raid hit us over the head with a 2x4, but this movie has way more to offer.  In fact, this movie doesn’t revolve itself around the action, it really revolves itself around the philosophy of action, of Kung-Fu and the principles of honoring the vows you take.  Oh yeah, it’s also about Ip Man, the master who went on to teach Bruce Lee everything he knew…awesome says what?

The Grandmaster tells the story, though not in chronological order (thankfully) of Ip Man (Tony Leung), a grandmaster of the Wing Chun style of martial arts.  Ip Man grew up in Foshen, located in the southern part of China.  When Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) a grandmaster from the north announces his retirement and successor Ma San (Zhang Jin), he states that the South should have its own heir (which turns out to be Ip) and a fight should take place.  But a fight between Ip and Gong never happens (they actually talk philosophy).  Gong’s daughter Gong Err (Zhang Ziyi) instead challenges Ip to restore the family name.   As Gong Yutian passes away and Ip is forced to move to Hong Kong due to an invasion by the Japanese, Ip becomes a teacher, passing along the ways of Wing Chun as Gong Err must continue to fight for her family honor when Ma San takes upon himself to take control of the Gong dynasty. 

First and foremost, the look of the film, the choreography, the music and just the overall mood that Kai presents at times can’t be rivaled by most filmmakers working today.  His visual style is so on point you almost forget there is an actual story going on.  And his best scenes are when he captures a tiny moment, from a look to how a character moves across the screen; you can’t take your eyes off it.  But the true success from the Grandmaster comes from moments of quiet.  The story that involves Ip and Gong Err, their mutual, almost unrequited love and respect for each other, sets up the movies best scenes (including one of the final scenes in the movie where Ip and Gong meet for the last time).

But don’t get me wrong, the fight scenes and the choreography that help drive them are almost flawlessly executed. And while not as exciting as what was seen in the movie I referenced before, The Raid, they’re a close second.  Kai is one of these directors that won’t let the camera sit there and capture the action; he gets right in the middle of it.   You’d think that taking that approach would be slightly jarring and hard to follow (which lesser directors have fallen prey to) but Kai is able to interconnect the two quite well.

If you’re a fan of martial arts movies, this is one to put on your must see list.  And this is coming from a guy who at best is just a casual observer of martial arts films. And if I really liked it,  you may just find yourself wide eyed and giggly with excitement.  And yes, I just used the word giggly…it happens

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