There are sequences in Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai's new film, The Grandmaster, that are as gorgeous as anything you'll see on a screen this year, or perhaps this decade. From the glow of tobacco embers in a cigarette, to the silhouette of a woman's cheek, to the beam of light from a moving train across snowflakes, Wong is a cinematic painter of fleeting moments.
As a storyteller, he's not always as satisfying. Conceived even before the director's North American breakthrough, In the Mood for Love (2000), The Grandmaster is an ambitious movie. It's also often frustratingly fragmentary, a mixture of biography, martial-arts epic, love story and meditation on exile. Five years in the making, The Grandmaster occasionally feels like five movies thrown into a fight cage, each wrestling for control.
The nominal protagonist of the story is Ip Man, a martial artist who died in 1972, after teaching Bruce Lee and helping popularize the Wing Chun kung fu style around the world. But Wong has little interest in the actual details of Ip's autobiography. Instead, he creates a panoramic story that serves as an allegorical tale of Chinese history from the mid-thirties to the postwar period, as seen from Ip's perspective – told in voice-over soliloquies – expressing his philosophy of dignified endurance.
When we first meet the handsome and charismatic Ip (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) as a married father of two, he's already a 40-year-old teacher in the southern city of Foshan, who is coming to the end of the "spring" of his life. He hangs out at the local brothel, the Golden Pavilion, which is not only the best place to see opera but the gathering place for martial-arts experts from around the country. In the opening sequence, we are introduced to battlers in a variety of fighting styles practised by different schools. Ip, who can easily beat them all, has reduced the sport to its basics: "Kung fu equals two words: horizontal and vertical. The one lying down is out; only the last man standing counts."
Across the country, the sport is highly factionalized. One old master who is determined to unify the discipline is Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang), an old martial-arts master who has come south from Manchuria in an effort to unify the northern and southern schools before his retirement. He arranges a match with Ip, more as a match of wits than strength, in which he invites the younger fighter to take a piece of bread from his hand. Ip prevails and the old man accepts defeat graciously. Not so his beautiful daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), who wants to defend her family honour. She and Ip stage a demonstration match, which Gong narrowly wins. Despite her aloofness, the two have established an intense physical and mental connection. Ip promises to visit her soon for a rematch and has a special coat made to visit the north.
History intervenes: the Japanese invasion, the Second World War, the Chinese civil war. A decade passes before the two combatants meet again in Hong Kong. (Ip has sold the coat for food, but keeps one button as a keepsake.) Gong is now working as a doctor, and taking opium for her battle injuries. In an extended flashback, she tells him of her own struggles after her father's death against her stepbrother Ma Zan (Zhang Jin), who attempted to wrest control over her father's school, scorning her for being a woman.
In the movie's most stunning fight sequences, choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Gong confronts Ma at a train station on Chinese New Year's Eve during an evening snowstorm. Shot with changes of film speed, from a variety of angles, in half-darkness, the fight is a brutal ballet of violence. Finally, Gong employs her father's technique of feigning defeat to secure victory. In the process, she suffers damage that ends her martial-arts career.
After her story, Ip begs her to show him her technique once more, insisting that she is the vessel of a cultural legacy, but Gong is steadfast in her philosophy: What's past is past. The final section of the film, involving the intense but unconsummated relationship between Gong and Ip, recalls the sustained ache of In the Mood for Love. Similarly, the film focuses on Chinese who are living in exile, while suffering, or perhaps revelling in, the exquisite melancholy of loss and missed chances. Like Wong Kar-wai, Gong is a hard-nosed sentimentalist to the bitter end: "Without regrets," she says, "Life would be so boring."