In terms of the Berlinale’s lukewarm record when it comes to opening films, The Grandmaster by this year’s jury president Wong Kar Wai is a significant improvement from previous entries such as Tom Tykwer’s The International (2009) and Wang Quan'an's Apart Together (2010). To those devotees left disappointed by 2007’s My Blueberry Nights, however, the Hong Kong auteur’s highly anticipated Ip Man biopic will not represent the hoped-for return to form.
With The Grandmaster, Wong has made his most commercial film to date. Compared to his other martial arts venture, Ashes of Time (originally released in 1994 and re-released in a redux version in 2008), it almost seems to be the work of a different director altogether. While the latter was a complete reinvention of traditional wuxia, featuring a heavily metaphysical, virtually unintelligible plot and barely any fighting, The Grandmaster is much more faithful to genre, delivering enough breathtaking fighting scenes to satiate even the most ravenous martial arts fans.
Though a considerable departure from the director’s characteristically elliptical style, the narrative is the film’s biggest weakness. The story starts in 1936 with Northern China’s preeminent martial arts Grandmaster Gong Baosen’s search for new talent on the eve of his retirement. He travels south to Foshan and finds Ip Man, played by Wong’s ever-reliable collaborator Tony Leung. This initiates a multi-strand narrative spanning the next two decades and involving Ip Man, Gong Baosen’s daughter Er, his top disciple and eventual traitor Ma San, and a nationalist secret agent called The Razor. Although wisely keeping the political turmoil of the era as a backdrop, the film is still overwhelmed in its endeavor to juggle the various storylines. The character of The Razor, for instance, is completely underdeveloped and would best have been left out entirely—he is barely granted any screen time and apart from a narratively inconsequential encounter with Gong Er, he has no relation to the other characters, rendering his eventual ascension to the status of grandmaster wholly arbitrary. Even Ip Man is not given adequate exposition, his story laid aside halfway through the film only to be picked up again towards the end and requiring a closing montage to tie up loose ends. Traces of Wong’s favorite themes are recognizable throughout, for example in the impossible love between Ip Man and Gong Er, but these too are not given enough room to breathe and truly develop.
In aesthetic terms, however, Wong does not disappoint. Working with French DP Philippe Le Sourd for the first time, he has crafted another gorgeous opus with a dark palette dominated by black and gold and abounding with his signature use of slow motion and oblique facial close-ups, imbuing this story of honor and tradition with the gravitas it demands. And then there are the fighting scenes. Choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill fame, they are meticulous spectacles, each one more impressive than the previous. The climactic showdown between the Gong Er and Ma San, which takes place on a train platform during a snowy New Year’s Eve, is such a fine piece of cinema that it's worth the price of admission alone. Luckily, it’s in very good company.