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The Grandmaster review

In the mood for a fight


In one corner stands US movie distribution heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, all brute force and deadly chopping power. In the other waits Hong Kong’s melancholy magician Wong Kar-wai, In The Mood For Love’s auteur, all watchful elegance and insinuating grace… Weinstein’s reputation for cutting art films pre-release (see also Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer) drew rage from movie-lovers when he requested cuts to Wong’s long-cherished biopic of legendary wing chun grandmaster Ip Man. But it would take more than big, bad Harv to bust the back of Wong, whose meditative comeback is a triumph of expressive style – style as depth – over blunt-tool bluster.

Despite outside interference, The Grandmaster is clearly Wong’s doing. Want to see the 130-minute version? Us too, but Wong’s tendency to ‘find’ his fragmented-by- design films in the edit lends itself to multiple cuts anyway: and he executed the cuts himself. Wong made kung-fu pic clichés his own in 1994’s Ashes Of Time and does so again here, favouring philosophical musings - on ageing, history, love, the contrast between horizontal/vertical – over physical rucks.

Wong regular Tony Leung magnetises as Ip Man, who trained Bruce Lee and is here introduced in the 1930s, when he bests a northern grandmaster in combat and is challenged by the man’s daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). Zhang is Wong’s other lethal weapon: her fight with Leung is a breathtaking exchange of deadly intimacies in a tale that tingles with the erotic charge between the two, even as war and Ip Man’s family life separate them.

Wong’s story proceeds via emotional intuition rather than linear bullet-points. If some support characters suffer trims during the perhaps truncated war section, enough emotional and stylistic depth-charges are planted to compensate.

The opening fight is a killer character-revealing study of grace under pressure, where torrents of rain and pulverising blows fail to dislodge Leung’s dapper fedora. Later, that show-starter is matched by a dust-up between Gong Er and her dad’s hot-headed betrayer Ma San (Zhang Jin). It’s a silvery symphony of screaming trains, high stakes, hard kicks and soft snow lovingly lensed as a lush but deadly dance of motion and emotion by DoP Philippe Le Sourd. The outcome isn’t a foregone conclusion, but there is a clear victor. As Wong proves, style can sometimes kick substance’s rump.

VERDICT: Flawed but often flooring, The Grandmaster swoons with grace, feeling and elegance. With Leung and Zhang on killer form, Wong has delivered his best film in a decade.

More info

UK theatrical release5 December 2014
DirectorWong Kar-wai
Starring"Tony Leung","Zhang Ziyi","Chang Chen","Wang Qingxiang"
Available platformsMovie