Final Asian Movie Month Movie: The Grandmaster (2013)

Well, Asian Movie Month (and a few days) is over.  Hopefully you enjoyed it.  I didn’t review as many films as I planned to, but I did hit on 5 of the most archetypal types of film in Asian cinema.  We started Asian Movie Month with the 30th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death, and ended it with the domestic release of the big budget film about his kung fu master and trainer Yip Man, The Grandmaster.  During that time, Guillermo del Toro released his tribute to Asian cinema Pacific Rim (which was big and very entertaining), Marvel released their story about Wolverine’s Japanese adventures The Wolverine (which was much better than X-Men Origins- Wolverine), and I ended it by taking in The Grandmaster.  There’s been at least 5 films about Yip Man of varying degrees of accuracy (probably the most accurate (but still somewhat loosely based) is the first Ip Man movie from 2008 that featured his son Ip Chun in it, and as a consultant), but this one is the newest (released to ‘select’ theatres this weekend, and should be more widely released soon), and probably the biggest production of the story.  

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I’ll have to start off this review by saying that director Kar Wai Wong wrote and directed one of the most boring movies I’ve ever sat through.  In The Mood For Love (which he put out in 2000) was incredibly critically acclaimed (I’ve never read a bad review of it), but it was a real slog.  The only thing that kept me from falling asleep was the awesome cinematography, and a few interesting scenes that were hauntingly beautiful.  His skill at creating mood and atmosphere were apparent even in a movie that made me want to slip into a coma.  The only other movie by him I’ve seen is Chungking Explress (1994) which Quinton Tarantino loved so much he cut a deal with Miramax to release it widely.  It is also a love story (yet a bit more exciting).

So, you might surmise that Wong likes love stories.  Or, to be more exact, stories of love lost and aching (both In The Mood For Love and Chungking Express had a lot of that in them).  He also likes to film in the rain.  The Grandmaster has a bit of all of this- I haven’t seen all of the other Ip Man movies out, but The Grandmaster has a strong underlying theme of ‘love that could have been’ taking a back seat to rage and revenge, and the sad fact and outcome of such choices.

It also has some damn fine kung fu.  I’ve become increasingly annoyed and impatient with ‘shaky cam’ action scenes of late- it is ok in some movies, but now it seems to be the norm and a tactic used by directors to avoid filming a coherent or well done action scene.  I enjoyed the recent movie Elysium, except for the annoying action scenes which looked like a bunch of people jumping around and grunting while someone shakes the camera.  The Grandmaster has none of this.  The action scenes are filmed with a cold eye and micro precision, which I enjoyed immensely.
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The movie starts off with a kung fu fight in the rain (of course) between Ip and a bunch of other fighters, with reflections on his early training by master Chan Wah-Shun.  Tony Leung, who also played the lead in In The Mood For love (as well as one of the leads in Chungking Express), and was in a ton of other Hong Kong films (Butterfly Sword, Hero, Infernal Affairs, Hard Boiled, etc.) plays Ip Man with dignity and a restrained ferocity and grace.
When Gong Yutian, a retired martial arts master from the north arrives, he announces that the south needs it’s own master (he’s already appointed a man, Ma San, as master of the north).  Ip Man decides to take the challenge, and (after being tested by the other southern masters) takes on Gong Yutian on an exchange of philosophical ideas.  Gong Yutian declares Ip Man the winner, however his daughter Gong Er (played by super star Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Rush Hour 2, Hero, House Of Flying Daggers, etc.) is unhappy with this outcome and challenges and defeats Ip Man in a battle in which whoever breaks a piece of furniture during the battle loses.  They part with mutual respect (and become pen pals).
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During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Ip Man’s family falls on very rough times, and Ma San becomes a traitor and kills Gong Yutian.  His final wish is that Gong Er be happy and not seek revenge, however this is a kung fu movie, so you know what happens next.

This movie was released in China in January as a 130 minute opus, however the U.S. version is chopped down to 108 minutes (not sure what we lost, but some of it does seem a little rushed, and needs a little more time to breathe).  Evidently ultra-perfectionist Kar Wai Wong spent over a year editing it, so I can only imagine what he thought of this cut.
It was cool to see Meng Lo (the Toad in The Five Deadly Venoms) in a small cameo (he was also in Ip Man 2: Legend Of The Grandmaster), and as artsy and restrained as it was, good to see some kung fu on the big screen again.  It was as beautiful and visually sumptuous as I expected, a cinemaphiles wet dream.  Every frame a work of art.  Now I want to see some trashy, old school ’70s kung fu theatre type of stuff on the big screen.  Bring it on!
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