The Grandmaster is a new Asian martial arts film that pulls zero punches. When I first heard of this film, I expected it to be another film to fill the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dagger genre. That’s pretty easy to say. It’s a huge genre. I was pretty sure it would have fight scenes, action stunts, and beautiful cinematography, but, honestly, these films have been relatively cut and paste for the last 20 years, at least in America. To me, the problem with these films is not really the actual film. It is the audience, and the American public hasn’t really learned to appreciate these films for their creativity, but, like myself, clumps them all together. What I really wanted to see was something to break the mold. The Grandmaster shows us just how difficult that is to do.
The story behind The Grandmaster is “true.” At least the tag line says so, but more often than not, “Based on a true story” is cliché and used loosely. Take The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Yes, there is a state called Texas. Yes, there are chainsaws in Texas, and I’m sure at one point or another someone has died in Texas. However, whatever true story The Texas Chainsaw Massacre claims to be based upon I’ve yet to be able to find. So, whenever I hear this, I tend to scoff heartily. Call me a skeptic, I don’t care. That being said, this film tells the story of Ip Man, Grandmaster of Wing Chun Kung Fu. Mainly, it shows the later parts of his life in the Fushan district of China in the 1930s. During this time, there is a lot of division in China, especially within the Wing Chun masters. A split of north and south has caused a lot of tribulation and argument. A champion is named for the north to fight a champion of the south, and Ip’s name is brought up. However, Ip has to prove himself, and this provides several opportunities for some sweet Wing Chun action. Ip takes their order and serves it cold with some sort of meaty flavoring. Before, Ip can face the champion of the north, however, the Japanese invade and Ip’s life descends into poverty. He also loses his family at this time, but escapes to Hong Kong and begins teaching martial arts. Fast forward to the 1950s and Ip runs into some old acquaintances and learns things are never simple.
This is a very interesting film to watch. Not only does it seem to show a historical side of China but also of the Asian martial arts which is not shown very often. I’m not claiming to be an expert and I have absolutely zero ideas if it is accurate, but it was interesting to think about to say the least. I think this film was written more like a documentary than an action movie. I realized this after noticing all of the scene breaks. The director truly takes a new direction mixing culture and history with storytelling. Also, I have never seen 1940s flappers in china. It was a strange thing to see. I guess it’s because I just always assumed it was an American movement. It gives the film a very strong noir vibe which I dug. This theme continues with Ip Man’s character always wearing a white fedora. This is very iconic.
The film itself is fast paced, always moving and giving the audience lots of information. This can be good and bad for some people. Good in the sense that you will not get bored seeing a new martial artist with a new style every 15 minutes. Bad, at least for me, when they list what seems like ten things with dates on the screen and you have to read them along with the Chinese names of everyone on screen while you’re trying to watch kung fu and figure out what’s going on.
Did I mention this is an Asian film? There are subtitles in there too which may confuse audience members like me. I don’t consider myself a slow reader/thinker either. However, I tend to go catatonic when I watch kung fu of this type. It’s beautiful, but distracting. It might be easier with a pause button. Like I said, this film is beautiful to watch and the cinematography is top notch. Careful planning went into making the film showing every little detail of the kung fu. From slow motion to different camera angles, even special effects, it all culminates into explicit detail so no one could be unsatisfied in this aspect. One of my favorite scenes from the film shows a fight scene between two masters near a speeding train. Joined with lighting and the reflection on the train it gives the moment a shutter effect, almost like watching an old grimy 35mm film from the era. It is really a wonderful effect that went well with the noir atmosphere.
The real challenge in making The Grandmaster a successful one will be to see if the mix of old meets new really works. I liked it, but I’m not sure it will work for everyone. This story of mafia meets mandarin is really a story of a country divided and hopefully the audience will be there to see how it’s brought back together through Ip Man.
I give The Grandmaster 4 “smoking cigarettes” out of 5.
by Jason Burleson