Somber tone, lack of focus bog down ‘The Grandmaster’

Kar Wai Wong’s “The Grandmaster” is at its best when it swings into action with its superbly choreographed kung fu confrontations. While it provides fascinating information on martial arts and their various disciplines, its attempts to be a biopic become disjointed.

Marketed to be the story of Ip Man, who spread the Wing Chun style of kung fu around the world and became famous for being Bruce Lee’s master,”The Grandmaster” starts out promising, showing Ip Man’s mastery as he prevails over several foes. Ip Man (Tony Leung), in a voice-over, then offers a brief history of his first 40 years, which he calls the springtime of his life — his early years of kung fu study and practice, his loving marriage and family, his thriving business in Forshan, southern China.

The story then picks up when the aging master Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang) arrives from the north in an effort to consolidate his power. Ip Man is chosen to face Gong Yitian and prevails in a battle of minds, but Gong Yutian’s daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) gains some measure of restoring family honor by besting Ip Man in a friendly duel.

Ip  Man’s plans to go north and face more Gong challenges gets stymied with the invasion by the  Japanese in the late 1930s. Ip Man refuses to collaborate with the Japanese, thus putting himself and his family in jeopardy, entering what he calls the winter of his life.

Desperate to support his family, Ip Man travels alone to Hong Kong to establish a Wing Chun school in an already saturated market of kung fun instruction. Adding to his troubles, political actions permanently separate him from his family.

While in Hong Kong, Ip Man tracks down Gong Er, now a doctor, and at this point the movie shifts its focus to the woman, recalling her quest to avenge her father’s death at the hands of a former protege, Ma San (Jin Zhang), her vow of celibacy and final bout with Ma San.

While this portion of “The Grandmaster” provides some emotional impact, given the fondness Ip Man and Gong Er have for each other but cannot act upon, the movie never gets back on track in resuming Ip Man’s story. Those expecting to see Ip Man’s serving as master to Bruce Lee in the budding martial arts superstar’s training will be disappointed. Only a couple of brief scenes are shown.

Visually, “The Grandmaster” is stunning despite the somber tone throughout the movie. Even the settings are dark — the sun never seems to shine in China; it is either pouring down rain or snowing.

Leung and Ziyi Zhang elevate the movie with their kung fu moves, naturally vanquishing foes without becoming winded or raising a sweat. Zhang’s brutal fight with Ma San is conducted while she wears a heavy fur coat.

For those not familiar with the history of kung fu, “The Grandmaster” is a good quick lesson in all the factions of this martial arts and the philosophies within. It’s just a shame it did not explore more the inner workings of a master like Ip Man.

 The Story of Film: An Odyssey

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