The figure of Ip Man, also known as Yip Man, is legendary in Asian martial-arts circles. Hes the teacher in early-20th-century China who led a colorful, combative life, helped popularize the study of wing chun (a form of kung fu) and taught Bruce Lee.
Hes also inspired a veritable cottage industry of movies with colon-heavy titles The Legend Is Born: Ip Man; Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster; Ip Man: The Final Fight among them all of which are entertaining but hardly transcendent.
That changes now with The Grandmaster, Hong Kong director/writer Wong Kar Wais masterful, handsomely shot biography that immediately makes all the Ip Man films that preceded it unnecessary. It ranks with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers as one of the most elegant and beautiful martial-arts films to play American screens.
But The Grandmaster is as much love story as battle cry and, while this might disappoint fans who just want wall-to-wall beatdowns, its vintage Kar Wai, the man who gave us the arthouse classics In the Mood for Love and Happy Together.
The best-known Ip Man incarnation is that of Donnie Yen, who turns in very straightforward performances in previous movies on the topic. In The Grandmaster, notable Hong Kong star Tony Leung (Hard-Boiled, Hero) plays him with an air of mystery. As the married Ip Man flirts with having a relationship with Er, Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger,Hidden Dragon, Rush Hour 2), the daughter of a martial-arts teacher who comes to Ip Mans town in search of worthy opponents, their story becomes the movies heart and soul.
The whole enterprise is more about mood and tone though than telling us about the life of Ip Man. Anyone waiting for Bruce Lee to make an appearance is in for a severe letdown.
But, make no mistake, the action scenes beginning with an opening fight in the rain thats as much ballet as brawl are carefully crafted choreography at its best. Wong Kar Wais movies always look gorgeous, and The Grandmaster is no exception.
Some viewers especially those just looking for a more detailed biopic or just a series of kinetic stunts might find it frustrating. This is not the standard chop socky or even wuxia (a Chinese story with martial themes usually set in the past) film. Its Wong Kar Wais artful twist on the forms.
Still, if youre going to only see one film about Ip Man, this is it.
In Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese with English subtitles