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"THE GRANDMASTER"
(2013) (Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Action: A Chinese martial arts master must contend with various challenges and changes in both his life and country.
PLOT:
It's the 1930s and China might be a unified nation, but those who practice martial arts are divided between the north and south. The north's master is Gong Yutian (WANG QINXIANG), an older but still proficient man who's about to retire. Since his only offspring is his daughter, Gong Er (ZIYI ZHANG), he's about to name his protégé, Ma San (ZHANG JIN), as his successor, all while making sure Gong Er is protected by bodyguard Jiang (SHANG TIELONG) despite Gong Er being more than able to defend herself.

In the south, the leading martial arts figure is Ip Man (TONY LEUNG), a soft-spoken family man born to wealth in Foshan and married to Zhang Yongcheng (SONG HYE-KYO) with whom he has several children. When not easily fending off any takers to his crown, he leads a peaceful life. But with the Japanese having invaded their country, Gong Yutian is looking to unite the divided martial arts camps, and travels to Foshan's Golden Pavilion, a brothel that also serves as a meeting place and battleground for martial artists. He chooses Ip Man as his final opponent, with Gong Er not being happy with the outcome.

But the Japanese occupation eventually leads to Ip Man not only losing his family's wealth, but also his two daughters to starvation. Desperate, he moves to Hong Kong where he tries to make a living teaching his form of martial arts, all while Ma Shan has been installed by the Japanese as a puppet figurehead. When he ends up killing his former master, Gong Er vows to get revenge, all while running into Ip Man again.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
While mixed martial arts fighting has grown exponentially in America and abroad, the average non-fan likely couldn't name one of the fighters if they needed his or her help battling their way out of some predicament. On the other hand, if you'd mention Bruce Lee, it's a good possibility that most anyone would recognize the name despite the fact that the fighter turned Hollywood star died 40 years ago at the far too young age of thirty-two.

Of course, any great master at most any profession or activity was once a student and Lee is no exception. His was a relatively unknown martial arts master by the name of Ip Man and his story -- or at least fragments of it -- are now being told in "The Grandmaster." If there ever was a film that you could just tell was in love with martial arts, both the fighting and philosophy, you'd be hard pressed to find one more head over heels than this offering.

As directed by Wong Kar Wai from a script he co-penned with Zou Jingzhi and Xu Haofeng, the picture is a thing of beauty. Every shot, every bit of lighting and every choreographed move seems to have been meticulously mapped out, staged and then filmed with the utmost care and respect for martial arts of old. In fact, it's quite mesmerizing to behold in all of its visual splendor. And that's even if the plethora of slow motion footage might grow old to some, the occasional wire-fighting somewhat taints the otherwise realistic depiction, and the many edits end up blocking our view of true martial arts prowess.

If anything, the visual panache goes a long way in masking the film's otherwise glaring problems and issues. Reportedly cut by more than 20 minutes for its domestic release (compared to the original Chinese version), it feels like that and a lot more was left on the cutting room floor. The result is episodic and sometimes frustratingly inadequate, when a much longer movie or maybe even mini-series could have been much more informative and filled in the various gaps and omissions.

Spanning from the 1930s to 1950s, it tells the tale of Ip Man (Tony Leung) initially being a soft-spoken family man in Foshan, living off his family wealth and practicing a limited move form of martial arts taught to him by his master. He hangs out at the local brothel, not for the ladies of the night, but rather the martial arts battles that also take place there.

His latest opponent is a master from the north (Wang Qingxiang) who's about to retire and pass down his crown not to his adult child (Ziyi Zhang) -- due to her being female -- but rather his protégé (Zhang Jin). Their brief battle -- after a demo of various martial arts fighting styles from other practitioners -- doesn't go as viewers will likely expect, a reaction fight fans might have toward the overall film that has more drama and even a budding love story than most will be anticipating.

We then zip through the Japanese occupation of the end of that decade through the '40s and then into the 1950s when the protagonist has moved to Hong Kong to try to earn money teaching his fighting style. He ends up meeting Gong Er once more, and there's an obvious attraction between them, but she's determined to avenge her father's earlier murder. The film then quickly zips through more time with one major character spiraling downward until their demise.

Beyond the aforementioned visuals, there are moments of dramatic grandeur here and there, but the overall effort feels fragmented at best, and we end up not knowing the main characters as well as most would like (something that also applies to even some smaller ones who briefly seem significant but then disappear). Which is really a shame as Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang create magnetic personalities that deserve a deeper examination. Leung in particular has a commanding screen presence, sort of like Clint Eastwood back in his western days (but without the squinting glower) and you know there's more to him than we're being shown.

Alas, that additional material either ended up edited out or possibly not even shot. All of which means this ends up as a very pretty and sometimes mesmerizing shell, but with only glimmers of real substance inside. And the Bruce Lee connection is only briefly touched upon at the very end of the film. For those looking for a far better told tale about him and martial arts in general, I'd suggest "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story." As it stands, "The Grandmaster" rates as just a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed August 21, 2013 / Posted August 30, 2013


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