Whether you’re familiar with his body of work or not, Wong Kar-wai is an identifiably distinct filmmaker, his career-long string of crowning achievements taking pride in exhibiting a deliberate, almost poetically visceral style that’s instantly recognizable. While this attribute is employed wholeheartedly throughout his much-anticipated latest, The Grandmaster is still a slightly vast departure from the auteur’s dreamily poignant romantic dramas, the film’s presentation remaining appealing as it lacks a cohesive focus on its historical context.
Instead of weaving a tale based solely on the legendary Ip Man’s (Tony Leung) influence in popularizing the Wing Chun style of martial arts, the film’s script opts to evenly distribute its content among his one-time love Gong Er and wide-reaching Sino-Japanese tensions. Given Kar-wai’s propensity to employ soft-spoken, lyrical if occasionally vague dialogue throughout his work, valuable details are obscured and important individuals are deemed such based only on their prevalence within a scene. Even still, The Grandmaster manages to hit a discernible structural groove, validating but not compensating for an overwhelming wealth of narrative substance it only partially dissects for us.
Visually, the film unsurprisingly shines through and through, an ardent attention to period-specific detail standing out alongside unrelentingly gorgeous cinematography. As these attributes lend themselves wonderfully to the masterfully choreographed fight sequences scattered throughout, The Grandmaster takes tremendous pride in illustrating Kung fu as an art form. From closeups of feet gliding silently across a floor to key players’ unparalleled physical ability and poise, these sequences’ presentation fervently illustrates the beauty in technique as much as they superficially if very effectively captivate.
Although a bit bloated if due only to its ambition regarding content, The Grandmaster is a gorgeous, frequently engaging affair that benefits more from its central subjects’ artful sparring than general cohesion. Still remaining informative despite its shortcomings, Kar-wai’s latest provides enough insight into the lives of those surrounding and influenced by Ip Man well enough, the man himself harboring as much attention as is needed to glorify his legacy.