Ip Man is convinced that life is a thing of balance and beauty. And he considers himself blessed to have spent the first 40 years of his in the midst of a bountiful springtime. He's been fortunate enough to live on old family money, marry and have children, and dedicate himself to perfecting skills in Wing Chun―his chosen style of kung fu fighting and yet another symbol of great beauty and balance.
Life can, of course, throw challenges in your path. But they're to be expected and approached with grace and strength. Many a kung fu master from around China has challenged Ip Man … and he has always stood victorious.
Some challenges, however, are more difficult than others.
After besting a highly respected retiring master from the North, Ip Man is faced by the man's daughter, Gong Er. Not only is she beautiful, but she's well versed in her father's kung fu philosophy of the 64 Hands. Ip Man finds himself staggered by both. It isn't his symbolic loss to the gifted female fighter that shakes him, though, so much as his understanding that he has truly met his match. His match in skill, his match in dignity and honor … and surely his match in life.
But what can a man of honor do? He is married. He has children. Responsibilities.
And then Ip Man's spring abruptly turns into a harsh winter. The Japanese army attacks China and grinds his small village under an iron boot heel. His friends are murdered. His children starve. His balance is threatened. His grace nearly gone.
"If you don't see something, does it not exist?" the kung fu master Gong Yutian asks his daughter. He says it as a way of excusing his bringing her to a brothel with him, but it can be interpreted in a positive way too, applied to many aspects of this film. It's the things below the surface, hidden from view that drive the good we end up encountering here.
An example: When Ip Man and Miss Gong first meet, they are both enthralled with their discovery of each other. Due to their internal sense of honor and family responsibility, though, they refuse to let anyone see their true feelings. In fact, the two potential lovers never touch outside of a sparring match.
Another: When encouraged to break a private vow she made because no one would know about it, Gong Er refuses with, "Heaven would know, Earth would know, my father would know!" "What I learned from my father," she says, "was not so much skill as it was a code of honor." Further, she says, "Others may live with no rules. Not me."
Ip Man works hard to care for his family, even putting his life on the line to protect them while refusing to collaborate with the Japanese enemy and betray his friends. When faced by kung fu foes, there are times when he honorably puts himself in harm's way to help his adversary save face or to reach out a rescuing hand.
The vow Gong Er makes is made to the Buddha, unfortunately, promising—while kneeling at a shrine—to refrain from marriage and children in exchange for a chance at avenging her father and restoring her family's legacy. Indeed, everything about the kung fu that we see here is intertwined with China's polytheistic spirituality and mysticism. Ip Man voices his opinion that our fates are up to the gods. And at a master's funeral we hear this phrase intoned over and over: "Oh, ye gods and spirits, guide this soul to paradise."
As mentioned, Gong Yutain takes his daughter with him when he visits a brothel at which many of the region's kung fu fighters gather. (The women there are all fully dressed.)
That perceived permissiveness is then juxtaposed by Ip Man and Miss Gong commitment to not betraying their families by indulging their physical attraction. In fact, the closest the two ever come physically is in the midst of a martial arts battle where a flipping move finds them almost touching noses in mid-flight.
This is a martial arts extravaganza with scores of punches and blows with open and closed fists, powerful kicks, and full body flips. Many of the scenes are shot in slow motion to enhance the visual spectacle, making it feel at times more like a live-performance dance than a brawl. In some scenes there are multiple foes swinging fists and feet at a single opponent. Men are propelled through wooden panels, metal gates and glass windows. Furniture is smashed. Bones snap. The vanquished are left groaning and writhing on the ground. [Spoiler Warning] Miss Gong's sense of family honor and pride drives her into a dangerous battle with a much stronger foe, wherein she is so injured (falling to her knees and spitting out a bit of blood) that she turns to massive quantities of opium for relief from the pain, finally dying from the combination. We're told that "she only ever lost to herself."
Two men swing blades, but they only appear to slice through fabric and jackets instead of skin and sinew. In a heated battle, Gong Er has her head pushed very close to the outside of a rushing passenger train. A man is pushed fully into that moving train, leaving him nearly incapacitated and with a bloodied face.
A Chinese man is shot by a Japanese officer. We're told that Ip Man lost his two young daughters to starvation. A man has his head viciously slammed onto a table top. Another falls to the ground after a battle, dying from internal injuries.
Crude or Profane Language
One subtitled use of "f‑‑‑er." We also read "a‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
A number of people smoke, including Ip Man who is coaxed into puffing a cigarette to help another man save face. And I mentioned the opium addiction already.
The Grandmaster is being billed as a biographical look at the kung fu fighting life of the man who trained martial arts superhero Bruce Lee. The very Ip Man who developed a flurry-of-fists style that the photogenic Lee took on to Hollywood fame. But that's not really what this movie is at all. And it certainly is not the typical martial arts chopsocky film that some will go looking for when they hear it's about this grandmaster.
What is it then?
Well, it's a lush cinematic Chinese opera of sorts (presented fully in Chinese but with subtitles). Respected director Wong Kar-wai has created a fluid movie waterwork that cobbles together parts of Ip Man's life while concentrating on the artistry of the kung fu style he spent his life passionately perfecting.
This is a movie of opulent visuals―snowy landscapes, ornate wooden tapestries and slow-motion raindrops cut asunder by thrust palms and flicked kicks. And it's all captured with precise camera angles and perfected lighting. It's an elegant examination of sliding kung fu slipper shots and fly-with-ballerina-grace fight choreography.
It's also a love story. Or, rather, a story of unrequited love. With a detail brush of the finest hair, Wong reveals his heroes' feelings of honor and regret, attraction and restraint, melancholy and seduction through stoic, porcelain mask expressions and the most furtive of glances.
To our bombastic Western sensibilities, that subtle side of things can end up feeling like there's quite a bit lost in translation. And maybe there has been, both culturally and because some have reported that the director snipped out 20 or more minutes of film to cater to an American audience hungry for more action.
But it's the action that gives this Plugged In reviewer the most pause. Because as balletic as the fighting is, there's still some pretty serious damage done here—to property, to bodies. Men fight against women. And death is the result of some of the encounters. Like the drop of blood spat from Gong Er's mouth, the "beautiful" violence stains a beautifully shot film that can give us a peek into another world, another time, another mindset, another place we're not accustomed to being.