There was a time when kung-fu movies were simply empty-headed fun, filled with excitingly choreographed fight scenes, earnest hero-versus-villains melodrama and, in all likelihood, a dollop of slapstick comedy. Now, however, we get a picture like Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster,” a loose biography of Ip Man, mentor to Bruce Lee (among many others)—a serious, gravely artistic, stylistically operatic film that’s visually intoxicating but also a crashing bore. Some fans are complaining that the American distributor has cut the picture down from its original 130 minutes to 108 or so, but it’s hard to imagine that in this case longer could conceivably be better.
Tony Leung, whose placid, beatific face bears a curious resemblance to Barack Obama’s, stars as the preternaturally calm Ip, whom we first see in his native Foshan dispatching an opponent using the southern Wing Chun school of which he is a young master, impressing the visiting northern grand master Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), who aims to unite China by bonding its two halves in martial arts. Like many of the fight scenes in “The Grandmaster,” this first one is in the rain, with lots of shots carefully composed to feature artistically splashing water. It’s also shot and edited, as are most of the others, in a way that obscures full-body action in favor of close-ups and partial images—a misguided practice akin to filming dance sequences in the style of the original “Footloose,” shifting from upper to lower body in a way that prevents you from fully appreciating the grace of the movements.
Gong Yutian’s admiration for Ip leads him to suggest a friendly bout between them, which Ip wins. That leads the grandmaster’s lovely daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) to challenge him to a rematch, in which she emerges victorious. That balletic encounter fires the embers of love between them, but Gong Er must return to her father in the north, leaving Ip behind but planning eventually to go to her.
Unfortunately, everything is thrown into turmoil by the Japanese invasion and occupation of China in the 1930s. Gong Yutian is killed by his erstwhile protégé Ma San (Zhang Jin), a collaborator who seizes the master’s property and sends his daughter packing but plotting revenge. Eventually she confronts him on a railway platform and metes out his just deserts. Ip, meanwhile, suffers economic hardship during the war but enjoys domestic happiness with wife Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye-kyo). After the war (and the establishment of the Communist regime) he moves to Hong Kong, where he searches out Gong Er, now practicing as a doctor, and they briefly rekindle their feelings for one another. He also establishes himself as a master teacher of kung fu among the exiles living there, who include Chang Chen as The Razor, a darkly dashing guy who’s unfortunately dismissed after a cursory conversation.
Such are the episodes of Ip’s life that Wong chooses as the linchpins of the biography, at least in this truncated version (Ip’s wife simply disappears along the way, without any discernible explanation, and The Razor certainly feels like someone who might have been treated more extensively). Since the purely expository or dramatic sequence s are staged like solemn, slow-moving and rather tedious tableaux, moreover, the highlights are certainly the periodic fight sequences, even if many are disfigured by the preference for soggy, water-drenched visuals and the chop-chop editing technique. But there are outstanding moments, most notably the intense but honorable match between Ip and Gong Er, marked by some impressive slow-motion work, and an abruptly energetic sequence in which Ip deals with a bunch of roughnecks in his Hong Kong studio. There’s also an intriguing “practice session” that Ip has with other southern masters before his contest with Gong Yutian, though it’s turned into a kind of descriptive catalogue of various kung-fu schools whose dialogue will be of little interest to anyone not fascinated by the technical details of martial-arts practice. As for the final face-off between Gong Er and Ma San, it’s elegantly composed and lusciously photographed, but the decision to interrupt it with cuts to a chattering monkey sitting on the shoulder of Gong’s trusted servant was certainly a miscalculation. It makes you think you’re watching “Crouching Tiger, Nattering Simian,” or something of the sort.
As a project Wong has long dreamed of undertaking, “The Grandmaster” pretty clearly reflects his vision. And one has to admire the fastidious work of production designer William Chang Shuk-ping and costumer William Chang, as well as Philippe Le Sourd’s lustrous widescreen cinematography. But though it’s not entirely fair to render a final judgment on the basis of this non-director’s cut, the film strikes one as handsome but turgid, vacuous and just a bit silly—the kung fu equivalent of “Heaven’s Gate” (the shortened version, of course).