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Saturday, March 8, 2014

THE GRANDMASTER -- Blu-ray review by porfle

Continuing to provide rich fodder for martial arts films and their fans is the life of Ip Man, who not only trained superstar Bruce Lee but, as we continue to discover, had a fascinating life which seems made to order for the movies.  Not the least of these is director Wong Kar Wai's exceptional and often downright exhilarating THE GRANDMASTER (2013).

Not as fanciful as 2010's THE LEGEND IS BORN: IP MAN with Dennis To in the title role, this latest Ip Man biography stars perrenial faveTony Leung (RED CLIFF, INFERNAL AFFAIRS, HARD BOILED) as a fortunate son whose first forty years are a bed roses until his hometown in China is ravaged by the Japanese invasion of the late 30s.  He'll later be separated from his wife and family and forced to live in Hong Kong, where he quietly endures his unrequited love for a martial arts master's daughter and, come the 1950s, takes on the young Bruce Lee as a student.

But before that, the film opens in spectacular style as the aging Northern master Gong Yutian, seeking to bring China's warring factions together, measures Southern fighter Ip Man's worth as an ally by siccing about twenty guys on him in the middle of a pouring rainstorm.  This introduces us to the director's penchant for surprisingly unconventional camera angles and rapid-fire imagery which, in conjunction with the dazzling fight choreography of the legendary Yuen Woo Ping (THE MATRIX, KILL BILL), creates dizzyingly sensational action sequences brimming with imaginative visuals.

Those expecting a constant succession of such action setpieces, however, will be disappointed when THE GRANDMASTER settles into its rather sedate and at times emotionally distant love story.  Gong Yutian's daughter Gong Er, wonderfully played by the lovely Zhang Ziyi (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS), becomes the forbidden fixation of family man Ip after they have a friendly exchange of martial arts moves (in yet another stunning action sequence which is played somewhat like a courting ritual).  But circumstances--that is, the invading Japanese--conspire to keep their chaste and ultimately stillborn love affair from reaching first base. 

Thanks to some gorgeous cinematography, everything has a burnished, almost gilded look, and the film is practically engorged with lush production design.  Director Wong Kar Wai lingers over every aspect of Ip's idyllic family life, secret romantic yearnings, and,  later, his lonely exile from everything he holds dear, with leisurely montages made of lush, poetic imagery that's beautiful to look at but not always all that gripping. 

Things heat up when young Ma San (Zhang Jin),  whom Gong Yutian introduces as his Northern successor, gives us a taste of his invincibility by effortlessly defeating a gaggle of foes ("Let's keep this simple--I'll take you all on," he quips), then killing his master and taking over his house.  This doesn't set well with daugher Gong Er, who not only swears to get revenge but, to Ip Man's dismay, also vows never to get married, have children, or have sex of any kind with anybody, anywhere. 

What makes THE GRANDMASTER tend to drag in its latter half is the lack of any kind of emotional intensity in the film's tragic love story.  When Ip Man encounters Gong Er years later in Hong Kong where she's now working as a doctor, this potentially interesting development is sidetracked by a lengthy flashback that takes us ten years earlier to her eventual clash with the vile Ma San.  In what is probably the film's best sequence and one of the most visually arresting fight scenes I've ever seen, the two mortal enemies go for each other's throats in a snow-streaked train station at night as a train thunders past them.

As in the other martial arts battles that occur sporadically throughout the film,  the spectacular train station sequence's  compositions, direction, and choreography are composed in dazzling  bursts of imagination and invention and feature rapid-fire editing (you may wonder how Wong Kar Wai managed so many camera set-ups) that is both exciting and comprehensible even when many shots are practically subliminal. 

It's such a visual indulgence, it could almost be described as "cinema porn", much like the unadulterated eye candy that made Korean director Park Chan-wook's LADY VENGEANCE so much fun to look at.  Even in the slower passages, everything has a burnished, almost gilded look, and the film is practically engorged with lush production design.  The Gold Pavillion brothel set alone took a year to construct, and is a marvel to behold as it becomes the backdrop for some of the film's mostscintillating demonstrations of fighting skill. 

The Blu-ray from Anchor Bay is in 2.35:1 widescreen with 5.1 sound.  Viewers can choose between hearing it in Mandarin with English or Spanish subtitles, or dubbed into English.  Extras include "The Grandmaster: From Ip Man to Bruce Lee", an interesting conversation with Bruce Lee's daughter Shannon, Wu Tang Clan's RZA waxing eloquent on the subject of this and other martial arts films, and an interesting collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes that total almost an hour.

When all is said and done, not much happens story-wise in this entry in the Ip Man saga,  and the whole thing doesn't come to a climax as much as it simply drifts away.  But  Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi are a treat to watch in the lead roles, the script is intelligent, and it boasts not only some of the most spectacular fights ever filmed but also some of the most stunning direction and cinematography I've seen in a long time, period.  So, while not totally fulfilling, THE GRANDMASTER is definitely one to watch. 

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Dr. Stan Glick said...

It must be pointed out that this is the 108 minute cut Wong made at the behest of Harvey "Scissorhands" Weinstein. The original is 130 minutes, and there's a 22 minute "international" version. I first saw the 108 minute version in a theater (only because I could see it at a way reduced price) and the full 130 minute version on an imported Blu-ray. The 108 minute version is vastly inferior. Too bad both weren't included on the Region 1 Blu-ray. My suggestion: Get yourself to a Chinatown or an online distributor and get the full length version. Only buy this Anchor Bay DVD when it becomes a bargain baement disc.

Porfle Popnecker said...

Thanks for the info!