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.
Wong is not the most conventional of storytellers, and his aesthetics don’t translate comfortably to the biopic genre, with its expectations of chronological clarity and linear continuity. He accommodates those requirements halfheartedly, using voice-over narrative and intertitles to relate chunks of exposition. But his interest in Ip’s story — in addition to its cinematic beauty — lies in the theme he has explored in films like “In the Mood for Love” (2000): the ways a man and woman who desire each other can conspire with the world to frustrate their happiness.
Some obstacles to fulfilling desire are unavoidable, like historical cataclysms. In 1936, when the film opens, with the recent Japanese conquest of nearby Manchuria seemingly out of sight and out of mind, Ip resides with his wife and children in the prosperous city of Foshan. He’s low-key about his kung fu prowess (aside from wiping out that small army in the opening scene), but he’s drawn into an ongoing rivalry between the northern and southern kung fu schools when Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang), the soon-to-retire Grandmaster of the North, challenges the skills of the Southerners, who call on Ip to be their champion. Ip defeats Gong in a genteel contest, but Gong’s daughter Er (Ziyi Zhang), also a kung fu expert, can’t abide her father going out on a low note, and challenges Ip. And so they duke it out, in the glittery splendor of the Gold Pavilion brothel. The bout is as seductive as an Astaire-Rogers duet, and has much the same outcome.
However, as if Ip having a wife and family weren’t enough of an obstacle to their mutual attraction, along comes World War II. The Japanese invade the South, but the subsequent eight years of a brutal war and occupation pass in just a few scenes, summed up by Ip’s voice-over explaining how he lost his home, friends, and family. And then, before you know it, it’s 1950 and Ip is in Hong Kong, starting a new life as a kung fu teacher.
This is how time passes in “The Grandmaster,” abruptly and irrevocably but also as if in a trance, with world-shaking events that come and go like afterthoughts (though the original version, with 15 minutes cut by the Weinstein Company for US distribution, might be less elliptical). But such biographical details are of less concern to Wong than the evanescent beauty of two lovers, separated by honor, duty, and the whims of history, whose desires and regrets flare up and vanish like a dream.