Movie Review: The Grandmaster (2013)
This Chinese-French co-production is a Wong Kar Wai film loosely based on the real life of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s instructor in the art of Wing Chun style kung fu. As the title indicates, however, the true central character is the Northern Grandmaster, Gong Yutian. As the film begins, Master Gong is about to retire as Grandmaster. He has traveled south, accompanied by his chosen successor Ma San and his daughter Gong Er to the city of Foshan for one last exhibition match with the southern schools.
The chosen champion of the south is Ip Man, who both receives wisdom from Gong Yutian and teaches the master something new. Gong Er is discontented, however. While she cannot succeed to her father’s school because of the pesky being a woman thing, she wants to prove herself against Ip Man. (Ma San might also have done the same, but was already sent home for being hot-headed.)
The film’s story skips over the Japanese invasion almost entirely (for a more detailed look at that part of Ip Man’s life, see the movie Ip Man.) After the war, Ip Man emigrates to the British territory of Hong Kong to make money for his starving family, only to be cut off when the Communists take over the mainland. Some years later, he discovers that Gong Er is also in Hong Kong, but no longer practicing kung fu, and we learn what happened to her and Ma Sun.
This isn’t quite the standard kung fu movie; while there are some standout fight sequences (a rain-drenched one that starts the film, and a dangerous battle on a snowy rail station platform come to mind), often the expected beats never connect. It’s also not quite a romance, though it has many of the moments you’d expect a romance to have. It’s more a story of life happening that just happens to be about martial artists.
I enjoyed it, but the anachronic order and some events being reduced to just an intertitle (words on the screen) may confuse some viewers, especially if you’re not good at reading subtitles in the first place. The period sexism may also be unappealing to some viewers, especially as Gong Er makes a decision that many women wouldn’t to deal with her dilemma.