Review: THE GRANDMASTER 一代宗師 (2013) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Review: THE GRANDMASTER 一代宗師 (2013)

Wong Kar-Wai's 10 years-in-the-making of the so-called Ip Man biopic is exquisitely photographed and blessed with some dazzling fight choreography, but THE GRANDMASTER is mostly a scattershot mess of unfocused direction.

When director Wong Kar-Wai first announced the project way back in 2002, I bet a lot of die-hard fans are eager to see how the critically-acclaimed arthouse director is going to do a big-screen treatment of the legendary Ip Man. Fast forward to 2013 (after a string of delays and whatnot), THE GRANDMASTER has came and gone with mostly favorable reviews and successful box office runs. However, after finally watching it, I must say that THE GRANDMASTER turns out to be an overrated effort after all.


Set in Foshan circa the 1930s, Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is a highly-respectable grandmaster of Wing Chun who has two children and a beautiful wife, Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye-Kyo). When veteran Northeast China Baquazhang grandmaster and Chinese Martial Artists Union chairman Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) wants to take on one last fight before his retirement, Ip Man is chosen by his peers to battle against in an upscale brothel called the Golden Pavilion. Ip Man nevertheless wins his fight against Gong, who never lost before in his life. While Gong retires gracefully, his daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) isn't satisfied with his father's loss. She is hellbent to challenge Ip Man herself, only to fall in love -- albeit briefly -- with his charm. Meanwhile, Gong's best student, Ma Shan (Zhang Jin) kills his master after a bout of argument. Gong Er eventually finds out about his father's death and vows for revenge at all cost.

Likewise, Wong Kar-Wai is always meticulous when comes to distinctive visual flair. Philippe Le Sourd and Song Xiaofei's sumptuous cinematography are nice to look at, while beautifully framed Yuen Woo-Ping's fight choreography with such balletic mix of slow motion and various camera speeds. The rest of the technical credits are equally ace -- ranging from its elaborate production design to its detailed costume design. On the plus side, the first half is particularly engaging. As for the cast, Zhang Ziyi excels the most as the hotheaded, yet emotionally frustrating Gong Er.

The brief, but beautiful fight scene where Ip Man battles his way up in the Golden Pavilion against a different set of grandmasters before squaring off against Master Gong.

The second half is hastily stitched together, while burdened by terribly inconsistent pace. It's understandable that Wong Kar-Wai's movie is always fragmented but this time, THE GRANDMASTER is way uneven yet unfocused. Another biggest problem here is the sudden change of focus from narrating Ip Man story to Gong Er story. If that's not insulting enough, the introduction of Chang Chen's The Razor character feels vague and needless altogether. Apart from Zhang Ziyi's exceptional performance, it's rather surprising to see the usually-reliable Tony Leung Chiu-Wai doesn't impress much as Ip Man. Although he is charismatic enough, he fails to expand his Ip Man character with a satisfying emotional center other than looking cool or broods a lot. Popular Korean actress Song Hye-Kyo is sadly neglected in a thankless role (thanks to Wong Kar-Wai for cutting off most of her scenes in the editing room) as Ip Man's wife, Zhang Yongcheng.


It's quite sad to see what could have been another classic Wong Kar-Wai movie-in-the-making turns out to be a disappointment. Strictly for die-hard fans.


Wayne Lei said...

It is a shame that this movie left you a negative impression of its inconsistent storytelling in the second half. To me, I find the transition from the focus of Ip Man to that of Gong Er quite natural. Before I elaborate my explanation, a question first: did you watch the movie with English subtitle? I just watch this version and find that the English subtitle fails to convey the underlying emotions and implications that embed in characters' conversation. Some translations are deviating from what character actually said. For example, when Ip Man gives Gong Er a button, the original Chinese line Gong Er says is: "这扣子你拿回去", whose accurate translation is "take back this button", instead of "I'll keep this button". I think the English subtitle both fails to capture the delicacy of wording and lacks the accuracy and saturation of meaning.
This is why I think if you are not a native Chinese and Cantonese speaker, yet you watched the movie with English subtitle, it may confuse you. However, the lines are meant to drive the development of plot and prepare the transition of focus. Ip Man comes to Gong Er's place for a request - to have a chance to witness her sixty-four hand moves - which she declines. Ip Man concerns more about the inheritance legacy of kungfu than their personal relationship, while Gong Er is dedicated to avenge her father's death and reclaim the legacy of her family. I think during their conversation, the focus of storytelling switches to Gong Er, as the focus switches from a witnessing (Ip Man's) angle to a personal (Gong Er's) angle. This corresponds to the aforementioned difference between Ip Man and Gong Er. In this way, you may find the transition of focus more naturally.

Casey Chong said...

Hi Wayne,

Thanks for your feedback regarding my review for "The Grandmaster". For the record, I've watched the movie in the Cantonese HK version. I always admired most of Wong Kar-Wai's works in the past such as "Chungking Express" and "In The Mood For Love". As mentioned in my review, the movie somehow disappoints me in a certain degree. Anyway, appreciate your elaboration within your comment about the movie.