The film starts with a simple definition of martial arts: “Kung fu. Two words - horizontal, vertical. Make a mistake, horizontal. Stay standing and you win ” This clear and basic premise is quickly disoriented, with dizzying flashbacks and a focus on slow-motion fights and short encounters packed with symbolism that is never completely explored. The film tells the convoluted story the trials and tribulations of the famous and beloved Ip Man, as he is forced to move to Hong Kong, loses his wife and daughters, falls in love with a rival named Gong Er, and becomes a wise and respected grandmaster.
However, the film fails to slow down enough to even introduce Ip Man, assuming the audience is already well aware of his fame and historical reputation.
Moreover, it is hard to tell if Ip Man is even the main protagonist, because Kar-Wai spends so much more time and energy on Gong Er and even the traitor Ma San is given an emotional depth that seems to be lacking in the portrayal of Ip Man. In fact, the more acclaimed fight scene at the train station, is between Gong Er and Ma San.
The romantic relationship between Gong Er and Ip Man is also mysterious and confusing.
In fact, it is clear that the romantic subplot was not just thrown into the script to appeal to a female audience. It is a central part of the film. For a variety of reasons, they never get together romantically. Ip Man is an honorable married man, and Gong Er is a strong independent women, who nonetheless dies addicted to opium. They never consummate their affections, but the entire film seems to revolve around this love affair that never quite happens, which may be effectively tragic and dramatic, but it is hard to understand why we should care so much about a couple that are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to form a relationship. It may be about ancient honor and tradition, but the characters become caricatures who must suffer for their love.
The narrative is also disrupted by multiple characters that serve only to show the historical schools and styles of martial arts. Ip Man defeats each of these wise masters to show not only his strength, but his deferential wisdom and patience. However, after multiple encounters, the story is subverted. It is more like a video game with random scenes interspersed to appeal to short attention spans and check off as many historical anecdotes as possible. As a biography, the film does not let the audience “see” Ip Man’s personality for even one moment, the entire film focuses on his reaction to attacks, tragedy or problems. Some characters, like Ip Man’s wife, are completely undeveloped, or even introduced, they are just thrown in haphazardly for some semblance of context.
However, the film does succeed as serious martial arts eye candy. The dramatic rain drops, beautiful settings and the golden hue that permeates the film enhances the romantic narrative. It is highly stylized, slick, and well made, which may suggest the director was not focused on telling a compelling narrative with well developed characters, but wanted to create a visual feast to appeal to martial art film aficionados.
The film is not violent or hyper masculine. There is a feminine tone throughout much of the film, and the Gong Er character is not a romantic foil, but an even stronger and more developed character than Ip Man. For this reason, there are multiple protagonists. There are few recognizable villains, except for the Japanese and the evil hands of fate. Kar-Wai also appeals to traditional themes. Styles and myths of martial arts, with each distinct school teaching Ip Man an important and valuable lesson. As a mythological figure, Ip Man is portrayed as a compelling allegory, not a real man. For viewers unaware of the cultural mythology associated with Ip Man, the film can be confusing and unintelligible.
According to Grady Hendrix, a film historian writing for Film Comment, there has been a “Ip Man Craze” in the last decade, with multiple movies, books, comics and videos with “broad transnational appeal” about the man who trained Bruce Lee, united the north and South styles of kung-fu, and helped build the foundations of martial arts that is now a major cinematic genre (Hendrix 2013, p. 58). Since most of the audience will already know Ip Man’s story, Kar-Wai may have decided to focus on other aspects of the film. Furthermore, he may have decided to leave Ip Man’s personality remains a mystery, because that makes him a more appealing hero. Ip Man is the strong silent honorable and modest master, who can also beat up a dozen opponents in the rain without breaking a sweat. Focusing too much on Ip Man’s feelings, emotions, weaknesses or mannerisms would make his appear human. Therefore, Kar-Wai trained his attention on Gong Er and other characters who could be more concretely developed. Other film historians have argued that Kar-Wai was engaging in the “prestige” genre of historical cinema, and was therefore forced to cram a large historical story into a film already packed with action, romance and scope. Kar-Wai was also trying to portray a national “myth” and not a real person, so character development was not a possibility. Ip Man is not a dynamic character, he does not change or falter. Finally, some critics believe that Kar-Wai’s style involves “self-consciously poetic and stilted dialogue” which can be misinterpreted as narrative weaknesses, but are actually part of seeing a Kar-Wai film (Dargis, 2013).
Ultimately, The Grandmaster is a beautiful and visually interesting film. It is also completely fragmented and confusing, forcing the audience to forget traditional cinematic analysis and just enjoy the complicated mess. Some characters appear and disappear without introduction. Some minor characters, like Gong Er’s father, are given such depth and close attention it almost seems like the film would be better if it were about them. This criticism does not detract from the films essential qualities of cinematograph and choreography. Any lack of energy or attention to plot and character development seems to have been invested in breathtaking fight scenes that focuses on and beautiful quite romantic moments that have made the film an international success.
Dargis, Manohla. (2013) "Style and Kinetics Triumph in a Turbulent China." The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 Aug. 2013. Web. 03 June 2015.
Godfrey, Nicholas. (2015) “Years of Being Styled: Wong Kar Wai's Many Grandmasters”Metro Magazine , No. 183 , Summer 2015
Hendrix, G. (2013). A Brief History of the Ip Man Movie Craze. Film Comment,49(5),