Directed by Wong Kar-Wai. Starring Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Rating not available.
Show any randomly chosen five minutes of The Grandmaster to martial-arts fans and you’ll get an instant sign-up to see the rest. But when 20 or so of those segments—double that for a rumoured four-hour cut originally floated by famed director Wong Kar-Wai—are piled up, you have one serious recipe for snoozeville.
Ostensibly a biopic of kung-fu master Yip Man (or Ip Man), the film conveniently leaves out central facts about the stoically spiritual fellow presented here, in this mainland-China production. The real-life guy worked as a cop most of his life, was a staunch anti-Communist, had a long-time opium addiction, and looked nothing like handsome Tony Leung.
The Hong Kong–born superstar brings much suave gravitas to the tale, which starts in the southern China of the early 1930s and proceeds to 1950s Hong Kong. Cool is not something it needed more of. The film is one humourless, delicately art-directed set piece after another, with no conversation allowed to unfold organically. Consisting solely of proverbs, warnings, and pronouncements, dialogue is all close-miked, dubbed, and drenched in reverb.
This renders inert Yip Man’s supposed passion for Gong Er (beautiful Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a northern kung-fu master. We never know why he leaves his prosperous family for her, especially since they are immediately separated by the Sino-Japanese War, presented as a passing bad dream. (When our hero’s daughters die of starvation, it only merits a passing mention in the relentless voice-over narration.)
Most of the remaining energy is reserved for fight scenes, all shot in close-up, frequently in slow-motion, and preferably with water dripping. Much furniture is broken, but no feathers are ruffled, emotionally. The style-minded Wong has gone impenetrable before, most notably in Blueberry Nights and 2046. But at least it was fun to try to figure out those movies.