The figure of Ip Man, also known as Yip Man, is legendary in Asian martial-arts circles. He’s the teacher in early 20th century China who led a colorful, combative life, helped popularize the study of wing chun (a form of kung-fu) and taught Bruce Lee.
He has also inspired a veritable cottage industry of movies with colon-heavy titles - “The Legend Is Born: Ip Man”; “Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster”; “Ip Man: The Final Fight” among them — all of which are entertaining but hardly transcendent.
That changes now with “The Grandmaster,” Hong Kong director/writer Wong Kar-wai’s masterful, handsomely shot biography that immediately makes all the Ip Man films that preceded it unnecessary. It ranks with “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” as one of the most elegant and beautiful martial-arts films to play American screens.
DIRECTED BY: Wong Kar-wai
STARRING: Tony Leung, Cung Le and Ziyi Zhang
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes; in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese with English subtitles
But “The Grandmaster” is as much love story as battle cry and, while this might disappoint fans who just want wall-to-wall beatdowns, it’s vintage Kar-wai, the man who gave us the arthouse classics “In the Mood for Love” and “Happy Together.”
The best-known Ip Man incarnation is that of Donnie Yen, who turns in very straightforward performances in previous movies on the topic. In “The Grandmaster,” notable Hong Kong star Tony Leung Chiu Wai (“Hard-Boiled,” “Hero”) plays him with an air of mystery. As the married Ip Man flirts with having a relationship with Er (Ziyi Zhang, “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” “Rush Hour 2”), the daughter of a martial-arts teacher who comes to Ip Man’s town in search of worthy opponents, their story becomes the movie’s heart and soul.
The whole enterprise is more about mood and tone though than telling us about the life of Ip Man. Anyone waiting for Bruce Lee to make an appearance is in for a severe letdown.
But, make no mistake, the action scenes — beginning with an opening fight in the rain that’s as much ballet as brawl — are carefully crafted choreography at its best. Wong Kar-wai’s movies always look gorgeous, and “The Grandmaster” is no exception; it doesn’t seem to matter that he’s no longer working with his longtime Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
Some viewers — especially those just looking for a more detailed biopic or just a series of kinetic stunts — might find it frustrating as the narrative is not always linear and the pace is leisurely. This is not the standard “chop socky” or even “wuxia” (a Chinese story with martial themes usually set in the past) film. It’s Wong Kar-wai’s artful twist on the forms.
Still, if you’re going to only see one film about Ip Man, this is it.