Film and TV

Wong Kar-Wai's The Grandmaster spars with the legend of Ip Man

The Weinstein Company's 108-minute cut of The Grandmaster may not be the epic Wong Kar-Wai originally intended, but it's fleet and silvery in its own right. In the late 1930s, an aging martial-arts master from Northern China, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), treks to the South to find its best fighter. He's already heard about one standout: Ip Man (Tony Leung) is a low-key champion who moves as if there's very little difference between fighting and breathing. Gong Yutian pits him against a series of opponents, including a female opera singer who advances on tiny bound feet that resemble embroidered deer hooves. The only person who can throw him off his game is Gong Yutian's daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who engages Ip Man in an episode of feral and near-faint-inducing erotic sparring, the sort of thing Wong does best. He roughly sketches out the story of the real Ip Man — who was Bruce Lee's teacher — but takes plenty of liberties, particularly in the romance department. The unrequited love between Ip Man and the fictional Gong Er is a slender arc in the movie, but it's a potent one. The two are separated through much of the story, which makes their reconnections that much more tender. Wong can turn a plain coat button into a symbol of chaste and enduring love, and Leung has the kind of face cinema was invented for. Even when he seems to be doing nothing, you can see the ghosts of tension, relief or yearning in his eyes and the planes of his brow; instead of opening up, he begins by concealing.

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.