Aside from cinephiles, kung fu aficionados, and fans of martial arts movies, few will be familiar with the name Ip Man, the legendary teacher of Bruce Lee and others. But minutes into Wong Kar-wai’s account of Ip’s life (starring Tony Leung), there will be no forgetting the guy in the cool fedora and long black coat wiping out an army of thugs in a rain-swept alley. Who knows what they’re fighting about, but given the ecstatic ballet of fists and water, tossed bodies and smashed decor, centered by Leung’s majestic impassivity, it doesn’t really matter.
As a kung fu film, “The Grandmaster,” with its exhilarating fighting sequences, won’t disappoint. And as a Wong Kar-wai film, it rates high with its poetic exploration of thwarted desire, the inevitability of loss, and the tyranny of social roles. It is the lyrical counterpart to Wong’s 1994 epic, the sword-wielding, medieval-set wuxia, “Ashes of Time.” But as a narrative, it can be challenging.