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Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the US release of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, the movie that began the martial arts film craze in America (buoyed also by the surprise TV hit of 1972, “Kung Fu” starring David Carradine). For a short time in the mid 70’s, a flurry of hastily dubbed and edited Eastern action programmers filled drive-ins and urban neighborhood grind house theatres. From this film frenzy a cinema icon emerged: Bruce Lee. After the low-budget sensation FISTS OF FURY, Hollywood snapped him up for the martial arts epic ENTER OF THE DRAGON. Lee’s untimely death struck a blow to the booming “kung fu fightin'” flicks. Sure there was Jackie Chan and Jet Li, but Lee’s shadow still looms large over this genre. There have even been several film biographies of Lee, the best of which may be the twenty year-old US made DRAGON: THE LIFE OF BRUCE LEE. Now people want to know more about one of Lee’s teachers, the master of Wing Chun, Ip (or Yip) Man (he’s been the subject of 3 films in the past 5 years). The new film THE GRANDMASTER could be considered a spin-off prequel to DRAGON (much as THE SCORPION KING is to THE MUMMY RETURNS), as opposed to a spin-off sequel like THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES or THE WOLVERINE. Let’s get settled in for a high-kicking, bone-snapping, trek through  Eastern history.

The film opens begins in turbulent mid 1930’s China. The forces of Japan have begun their invasion in the Northern provinces. The martial arts factions North and South of the Yangtze River decide they must unite to take on the invaders. At the luxurious brothel, the Gold Pavillion, the retiring Northern Grandmaster Gong will challenge a champion from the South. After defeating several martial arts masters, Ip Man (Tony Leung) is selected. After the main challenge Ip Man meets Master Gong’s daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), inheritor of her father’s lethal 64 Hands’ technique. Master Gong has already made Ma San, a surly young man, his successor rather than his daughter (his old ways are sexist, but she may continue to pursue a degree in medicine). Later Gong Er challenges Ip Man and defeats him. This begins a correspondence that continues when Ip Man returns to his wife and children back in Foshan. Their plans for a return match are scuttled by the full-scale Japanese invasion of China. Ip Man’s family suffers devastating losses. At war’s end, he travels alone to Hong Kong, in order to find work and send back the money needed to recoup their financial losses. When the country’s new Communist leadership annexes Hong Kong, Ip Man is not allowed to rejoin his family. But he gets some news that lifts his spirits: Gong Er has a medical practice in the city. Will they re-unite and start a new life together?

Leung gives Ip a quiet, reserved dignity reminiscent of a veteran gunfighter of the old West (especially with the ever-present white hat he wears outside of the Pavilion). He doesn’t need to strut or pose. Stories of his fighting skills travel faster than any boasts from his lips. It isn’t until he meets Er that Leung shows us the unspoken passions that this beauty has stirred. And Zhang is quite beautiful indeed as she faces Leung in a fight on the Pavilion stairs that almost becomes an entrancing dance of desire. Her Gong Er is proud, but frustrated at the sexist attitudes of the time. Perhaps the fact that Ip Man treats her as an equal opponent is part of her attraction to him. She dazzles in repose and in furious battle especially against the snarling Jin Zhang as the treacherous Ma Sun. Director/ screenwriter Kar Wai Wong gives the film almost a dream-like look. Until the big brawls, the village streets are silent, almost desolate. But the interiors are teaming, especially in the opening scenes set at the Gold Pavilion. particularly fun is an early GP sequence in which Ip must face several fighters in a martial arts gauntlet. Each fighter adheres to a different fighting style and Ip must adapt his Wing Chun skills as each new opponent explains the virtues of their techniques. Also involving is a scene with the Gong Master involving a piece of pastry that is a demonstration of almost balletic grace. The most compelling fight scenes have Ip and Er also dealing with brutal weather elements. Ip encounters an endless stream of thugs during a torrential downpour while Er faces off against an old enemy on a slippery, snowy train platform (as the locomotive dashes just inches away from them). Unfortunately the face-offs start to become repetitive after the film’s one hour mark. They’re a tango of fist thrust/ block/ leg sweep/ block and repeat and repeat. It doesn’t help the film’s dramatic thrust that the war turns this tale into a frustrating, unrequited love story. There’s no really satisfying payoff for the scenes of longing as the two continue to correspond with coded letters. THE GRANDMASTER gives us a stylish look at China during those war years, but those wanting to know more about the shaping of everybody’s favorite movie martial artist will come away a bit disappointed. But in that brief scene as Leung and Zhang defy gravity on the steps and banisters, the movie truly soars.

3.5 Out of 5

grandmaster poster

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.


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