“The Grandmaster” is like a meal of all desserts, with maybe the tiniest bit of protein thrown in. You’ll feel decadent enjoying it, but everything is so tasty, it would be foolish to object.
An exercise in pure cinematic style filled with the most ravishing images, “The Grandmaster” finds director Wong Kar-wai applying his impeccable visual style to the mass-market martial arts genre with potent results. He’s found a way to join the romantic languor of his earlier films such as “In the Mood for Love” with the fury of Bruce Lee.
Working with his alter ego, actor Tony Leung, and an impressive Ziyi Zhang — and leaving the action choreography to the masterful Yuen Woo-ping (“The Matrix,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) — Wong indulges in mythmaking on the grandest scale.
It is Lee’s real-life martial arts teacher, the legendary Ip Man, played by Leung, who is the grandmaster of the title. Though nonfans are likely unaware, we are amid an Ip Man revival: Several films and a TV series have come out of China about this master of the Wing Chun style, and a new film, “Ip Man: The Final Fight,’ will soon be in theaters as well.
Already Wong’s biggest hit ever in mainland China, “The Grandmaster” has, with his approval, been slimmed by 22 minutes for American audiences. The director says that with this cut, the film has been “finessed into more of an emotional, human story.”
The narrative has been tidied up with the addition of intertitles explaining Chinese history, a new voice-over read by Leung, and on-screen character identifiers, all intended to make the story clearer to those not already in the know.
All this matters less than it might because the narrative turns out to be “The Grandmaster”s least essential element, serving as little more than a way to link the string of action tableaux that are the film’s raison d’etre. (Indeed, when people are talking, their dialogue leans heavily on aphorisms such as “a well-matched opponent is like a long-lost friend” and “mastery has three stages: being, knowing, doing” — musings that would not be out of place on the old David Carradine-starring “Kung Fu” TV series.)
The saga begins in 1936, and though Chinese martial arts schools have traditionally been divided into north and south by the Yangtze River, a northern master named Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang) has headed south to the city of Foshan to seek a rapprochement before he retires.
Ip Man, as it turns out, is the most respected name in the southern school of Wing Chun. A family man and gentleman of leisure who’s devoted himself to the martial arts, he hangs out in the Gold Pavilion, the local brothel and gambling den where, the saying goes, many a man has “entered a prince and exited a pauper.”
Before we really find out much about Ip, we see him in action. “The Grandmaster” opens with the great man, wearing his trademark snap brim white fedora, taking on a crowd of martial artists who, for no apparent reason, attack him in a driving rainstorm. The scene is a pip, as well it might be: It took 30 successive nights of shooting to get it right.
Leung engaged in martial arts training for three years to prepare for this role. It paid off not only in the imperturbable self-confidence he brings to his movements but also in how effective he is in one particular sequence where masters of four martial arts styles — hong ga, bagua, xingyi and baji, if you care to know — try to catch him off guard with moves with names such as the Crushing Fist. It’s not going to happen.
The most emotional fights in “The Grandmaster,” however, involve Gong Baosen’s firecracker daughter Gong Er (played by Zhang of “Crouching Tiger”). The mistress, we are told, of the deadly 64 Hands fighting technique (not to be confused with her father’s Old Monkey Hangs Up His Badge moves), Gong Er’s passionate temper gives Zhang the opportunity to make the film’s strongest impression.
Gong Er displays her artistry in two very different fights. The first is an elegantly photographed battle with Ip Man himself, where the twirling combatants half fall in love with each other as they trade graceful feints and jabs (Philippe Le Sourd is the cinematographer).
The second, more serious battle is a ferocious struggle with her adopted brother Mo San (Zhang Jin) that takes place on a snowy train platform late at night, a situation that somehow echoes a scene from “Doctor Zhivago.”
For a martial arts extravaganza, that is elevated company indeed.