Tony Leung-Grandmaster-485
Photo Courtesy of Weinstein Company

It will come as no surprise that Wong Kar Wai’s new epic The Grandmaster is an exquisite-looking film or that his frequent leading man, Tony Leung, is a quietly compelling presence in it. What sets this apart from the filmmaker’s ethereal, often elliptical work of years past is that it documents the true story of a figure popularly known as The Ip Man, a legend in the world of martial arts who taught Bruce Lee. To recreate a variety of distinctive martial arts styles and techniques, the fight sequences have been choreographed by the formidable Yuen Wo Ping, who is well known for his work on The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

What these facts don’t reveal is that The Grandmaster is more of a biopic than a kung fu movie, concerned as much with intricacies of Chinese history and philosophy as with action. It is a sober, often somber, piece of work, as the Ip Man’s life was marked by considerable frustration and disappointment.

Much has been made about the years of training that Leung and his costars endured in order to do their own fighting onscreen. Those scenes are beautifully staged, and each one has particular significance in the destiny of the leading character and the fate of his country. But they bear scant resemblance to the rousing, boisterous mayhem of a vintage martial arts film.

Ziyi Zhang-Grandmaster-680
Photo Courtesy of Weinstein Company

While I admired much of The Grandmaster, I felt somewhat removed—not the first time I’ve responded that way to Wong Kar Wai’s pictures. I looked forward to the action set pieces and, instead, found myself in the midst of a long, largely downbeat story of a man whose integrity cost him a great deal, personally and professionally, and whose reputation only solidified in the later years of his life.

Tony Leung’s innate dignity and sang-froid perfectly suit the character of Ip Man, whose fortunes are tied to territorial rivalry and outright warfare in this saga that begins in the 1930s and ends in 1950s Hong Kong. His costars, including Ziyi Zhang, Chang Chen, Wang Qingxiang, and Zhang Jin, are also quite good. But a certain ponderousness weighs down The Grandmaster and keeps it from becoming emotionally satisfying, at least for a Westerner with no knowledge of Chinese politics. I’m afraid I came away disappointed.