A movie review of The Grandmaster: Master of Kung-Fu? Or Life?

By Bowen Zhou

It was the winter of 2015 when I stalled on seeing Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster for two years because I was not as interested in Kung-Fu movies as I used to be, which is a common thought for most Chinese people nowadays. I did not go to the cinema to see the intial edition when it first released in 2013; in my mind, the era of Chinese Kung-Fu has been long gone and Kung-Fu is currently just a kind of artistic performance. The Grandmaster, however, shocked me from the opening fighting scene and brought me back to years ago when I saw the first martial art movie of my life, Fearless. Something deep inside me was inspired and awakened again; I was so proud of being a Chinese.

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, The Grandmaster is an epic martial art feature which portrays the life and times of the mighty Wing Chun master, Ip Man, played by the excellent Tony Leung, who has worked together with Wong Kar-Wai for years. Wong had planned to film the story of Ip Man ever since the year 1996. He had been researching, visiting living Kung-Fu masters and spending time digesting all the information he gathered. Years later, he finalized the four major schools of Kung-Fu: Bagua, Xingyi, Baji, and Yong Chun. Different from other directors who consider commercial factors when making Kung-Fu features, Wong shot this movie to regain the reputation Kung-Fu once had. As an old saying goes, “Do one’s best and then let fate decide,” and Wong did all he could.

How does one portray a respected Kung-Fu master like Ip Man? He was a man who never made an extraneous move or wasted words on empty ceremony or sentiment and mastered Bruce Lee. The first step is to find the right actor. With a brilliant career and eyes of wisdom, Tony Leung did play Ip man in a thoughtful manner; He made Ip man more like a scholar, not just Kung-fu master. Before starting up, all the heroes trained with Kung-Fu masters from different schools for years, which is a difficult decision to make for these actors who had already gained fame. After all, Tony’s arm broke twice during the training. Ziyi Cheung, who played Gong Er, the successor of Gong family, and Chang Chen, who played the successor of Xingyi, suffered the pain of serious and strict training. Their sweat and tears achieved payback for the fabulous performances in the Grandmaster; they make every move underneath the solid gist of each school. As a result, the Grandmaster comes out as a martial epic with authentic and aesthetic fighting scenes instead of using substitutes or special effects

Speaking of the fighting scenes, there is rarely any blood or injures inside the movie, which illustrates one of the aims of the movie: Life is way more than winning. The fighting scenes of the Grandmaster are marvelous despite the lack of deadly blows or trumps of Kung-Fu. The opening street fight, which occurs in the pouring rain is emotional. Ip Man punches down a bunch of hired thugs in a narrow and dark alley while balancing his hat on his head all along. Wong reveals the agility and capability of Kung-Fu by placing the angle of camera from high to low position and using several close-up shots for water drops. The hat symbolizes the modest and steady feature of Kung-Fu while every single splashing drop indicates that there is great strength hidden in every single move of Ip Man. What an ingenious visual technique!

My second favorite fighting scene takes place at the train station. Before the fatal battle between Gong Er and Ma San, the servant of Gong beats several sidekicks of Ma San. The servant did use his blade, however, instead of scarlet blood, thick cotton slips emerges. Wong’s handling of this is perfect; the flying cotton from those cotton-padded jackets means the servant has better skills and hits the targets but he does not want to kill anybody, which is a powerful threat and a perfect level of showing mercy. And the beginning fight posture of Gong Er while snowflakes dance around her is incomparably beautiful.

Moreover, to those who are obsessed with the Grandmaster, they must have a complex about Chinese culture. The lines of this movie are gorgeous. Profound meanings and aesthetic use of language hide behind those lines. Master Gong, the head of the Martial Arts Union once told his top disciple, “Why a knife must have a sheath? It is because its real power lies not in sharpness, but in concealment.” This is not just a philosophy of a knife, but a true aim of Kung-Fu and life; one must always be modest and humble.

Once Gong Er said to Ip man, “I’m lucky to meet you in my prime but let’s say we suspend this game of chess (In Chinese, this means Weiqi) between us.” A suspended chess, what a metaphor for a man and women who are not together; the story exists but does not continue anymore. Life is like a chess game. Once a side makes a move, there is no turning back as the chess stays on the board. The result simply follows the fate. The fates of Gong Er and Ip man do not bond together. This is life!

On the other side, having seen both the English and Chinese version, I found there are some points lost in translation. Although there are still romantic dialogues between Gong Er and Ip man, there are lines that need re-translating so the audience can understand accurately. Ip man describes Gong Er as, “Every encounters in the world is a reunion after being apart for a long time.” This line could be the most poetic sentence in Chinese but it has lost its power and becomes confusing.

The best movies never end; they make you think. Ip man is a master of Kung-Fu, but he declared that the biggest challenge he ever faced is life. I fell in love with Kung-Fu in 2006 after watching Fearless which is about another Chinese Kung-Fu master, Yuanjia Huo who inspired the generation with his spirit and skills when fighting against the foreign invasions. I even found a master of Tai Chi and asked him, “Why is Kung-Fu not as popular as it was before? Is it because it lost its power?” The master answered, “It is not Kung-Fu that lost its spirit, but the people.” People nowadays do not insist what they love from the very beginning, instead, they tend to follow what others think to be cool. They lose themselves gradually. Each main character in the Grandmaster stands for a school of Kung Fu and they become masters of it. How would you master your life? Go to see the movie and think about it.

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6 Responses to A movie review of The Grandmaster: Master of Kung-Fu? Or Life?

  1. mediaphiles says:

    Bowen, I am very impressed by your movie review! Overall, it is written very well and gives the reader an inside look at the film. My favorite part about your review is the fact that your introduction focuses on your personal experience while watching the film. That definitely adds an effective element to your piece.

    -Allie Kleinman

  2. mediaphiles says:

    LOVE your review title! I’m a sucker for clever ones like this. By starting with your own personal experience with martial arts movies, you add an additional layer of interest to your review. You discuss in depth the relation to Chinese culture, the art of Kung-Fu, and the issue of foreign language translation in its effects to the movie. Very wise review!

    -Meg Schmit

  3. mediaphiles says:

    I personally am not a fan on the big, drawn out, unnecessary and overly gory scenes of violence we get in many traditional american action films, so I really like the idea of a re-connection to the artistry in Kung-Fu! Especially with the mentioning of the scene where even when a sword is used, no blood is actually drawn. A clever and refreshing twist!
    –A.P. Brothers

  4. marymdalton says:

    What Bowen does not say — but how I experience the film first and foremost — is that this is an achingly romantic film!

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