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December 2, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


Martial arts films have never really caught my imagination. There is something about the overly stylised fight scenes and humourless dialogue that has in the past stopped me from engaging with them. Yet the visual beauty and accessibility of The Grandmaster allowed me to appreciate the genre for the first time. It may not be a great film but could stand as an entry point into the martial arts genre and to the work of director Wong Kar Wai.

Kar Wai remains a distinct figure within world cinema. His highly stylised and visually unique methods have given an elegance and grace to his films which few directors have ever achieved. In his best work he is able to balance this visual splendour with an emotionally resonant narrative. It is this balance which has created masterpieces such as In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express.

The Grandmaster tells the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung), a kung-fu martial arts master. The film follows his days in the South Chinese city of Foshan, his exile to Hong Kong, and the new life which he builds there. However the film is as much the story of martial arts itself as it is a story of Ip Man. Ip Man is probably most famous in the west as Bruce Lee’s trainer, and it seems fitting that his story has now made its way to the silver screen.

The characteristic imagery of director Wong Kar Wai’s work fits perfectly with the martial arts sequences of the film. This genre may seem at first an unexpected move within Kar Wai’s filmography but the precision that he brings to it makes the decision seem almost natural. The fight scene which takes place in the train station rivals the most beautiful of scenes within his work.

For all its visual beauty, the film is let down by its disjointed narrative. Incomplete story arcs litter the film and it can become hard to follow in the midst of characters who are neither introduced nor in turn followed. Towards the end of the film the narrative emphasis seems to shift from Ip Man, to a rival martial arts master, Gong Er. This illustrates the lack of narrative fluency that the film suffers.

Much has been made of the severe editing of the film. Its first cut was over four hours long, yet the version which reaches cinemas here in the U.K. is a mere 108 minutes, which in itself is twenty minutes less than the Chinese release of the film.


The greatest impact this editing has had is perhaps not on the narrative itself but within the thematic content of the film. The Grandmaster, as it stands, is a film simply about martial arts, with great detail given to it in its many forms. The story only briefly touches on themes of modernity and the fall of imperialism. This makes me wonder whether the longer cut would use martial arts as a metaphor for China’s move towards modernity, instead of simply being a film about martial arts. Either way it fails to meet the thematic heights which it could otherwise have achieved.

It is difficult to see The Grandmaster without being slightly disappointed. In my favourite Wong Kar Wai films the visual style is complemented by an emotionally resonant narrative. It is this blend of finesse and feeling that characterises much of his best work. Overall The Grandmaster remains a visually stunning and entertaining film but its narrative weaknesses prevent it from truly capturing one’s imagination.

The Grandmaster is released in UK cinemas on December 5th

Wyndham Hacket Pain