Wong Kar Wai’s ravishing martial arts epic The Grandmaster is nominally the story of two decades in the life of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the kung fu master who specialized in the school of Wing Chun (the same style he would go on to teach Bruce Lee). The movie opens with an incredible fight sequence in a dark alley under a rainstorm, Ip Man taking on dozens of streetfighters while wearing a white wide-brimmed hat. Choreographed by the great Yuen Wo Ping ( The Matrix, Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the brawl gets the movie off to a rousing start: Bodies in motion, punches and kicks flying, and Leung radiating an unflappable cool as he takes down wave after wave of combatants. Even if it wasn’t pouring, Ip Man would probably still have not broken a sweat. He doesn’t even lose his hat.
With that introduction, Ip Man is immediately established as a formidable warrior (he started training at the age of 7 and never lost a fight). But unlike most chopsocky pictures of this genre, The Grandmaster isn’t entirely devoted to pitting the hero against a number of increasingly dangerous foes. Instead, Wong uses his protagonist to revisit a bygone era in China’s history — 1936, at the start of the Japanese invasion, when the country’s martial artists from the North and South regularly competed against each other to bring honor and respect to their families.
This is fairly complex stuff, made more accessible to American audiences by title cards that were not part of Wong’s original, longer cut of the film. Each family practices a different style of kung fu, and there are various factions within each school. Like many of his peers, Ip Man came from a wealthy family, and by the age of 40, he was blessed with a loving wife (Song Hye Kyo) of noble background and two children. “If life had seasons, my first 40 years were spring,” he says in voiceover.
But winter is just around the corner. The retiring Grandmaster of the North travels to the South, Ip Man’s turf, for a celebration at the Gold Pavillion, an opulent brothel used by the masters as a place to gather and practice. The elder master is looking to anoint his successor. But he refuses to consider his daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), even though she is the only person who knows her father’s “64 Hands” fighting technique. At the time, women were barred from participating in martial arts. Resentful of the snub, Gong Er challenges Ip Man to a private fight: If he allows her to break anything in the elaborately decorated room, she wins. Wong directs their fight like a dance of seduction, their faces sometimes coming within inches of each other, as if they were about to embrace. Ip Man is married, and Gong Er is too proud to admit any romantic interest. There is no possibility of anything happening between them, but there is the sort of dolorous longing Wong has conveyed beautifully in previous films ( In the Mood for Love, Happy Together, Chungking Express). This time, he just expresses it via balletic, kinetic action.
Ip Man’s life is upended after the Japanese invade in 1938. He loses all his wealth, his status and other things that are too painful to bear. In 1950, he leaves his family behind and relocates to Hong Kong to start a Wing Chun school to earn money. There, unexpectedly, he runs into Gong Er, who has become an opium addict. Instead of a typical action movie, The Grandmaster is a grand historical epic about old Chinese cultures that were irrevocably lost during the Japanese invasion, seen through the eyes of two indelible characters. Late in the film comes a long flashback revealing what happened to Gong Er since Ip Man last saw her, and the story is so rich and tragic, it almost renders Ip Man a supporting character in his own movie.
Every frame of The Grandmaster displays Wong’s meticulous attention to detail and framing. There is a thrilling fight at a train station during a snow storm in which the snowflakes float around the combatants like pearls. You could watch that sequence forever. And although this is probably the most accessible film Wong has made, The Grandmaster sets aside traditional story structure in its last 15 minutes and becomes one of the filmmaker’s free-form visual poems, suffused with melancholy and compassion. The director never forgets to put on a great show for the audience: For fun, he even includes a throwaway bonus fight halfway through the end credits that is as carefully crafted as any in the main film. But The Grandmaster ultimately blends right in with Wong’s body of work, a gorgeous meditation on the importance of sorrow and lament. “To say there are no regrets in life is to fool yourself,” Gong Er says late in the film. “Imagine how boring life would be without regrets.”