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We’ve seen Wilson Yip and Herman Yau’s takes on the legend of Wing Chun grandmaster Yip Man (1893-1972). At long last, we take a look at the Yip Man film everyone has been waiting to see, directed by famous arthouse auteur Wong Kar-Wai (IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE).

The film begins with the now famous footage seen in the trailer, with Yip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) surrounded by dozens of fighters in the pouring rain. Using only his martial art of Wing Chun, Yip is able to defeat the entire crowd, which includes sanshou champion turned action star Cung Le. However, the film is not your typical action film. It becomes a set-up for a story about not only Yip Man, but his respect for all forms of martial arts.

In 1936 Foshan, Northern martial arts master Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) is seeking an heir to take over his martial arts association in the South. He has chosen to represent the North and as his successor, his top student Ma San (Max Zhang). When Yip Man is hailed as the potential successor, he must first endure a series of tests. This includes taking on Sister San (Zhou Xiaofei), an expert in bagua; followed by Rui (Lau Shun), an expert in hsing-I and then Brother Yong (Sammy Lau), an expert in huen kuen. After passing these tests and showing his respects towards his opponents, he finally faces Master Gong and after their duel, which combines the physical with the mental, Yip is chosen as Gong’s southern heir.

Upset with the loss of her family honor is Master Gong’s daughter Lady Er (Zhang Ziyi). Despite her father hoping she will get married and have children, she feels too proud and seeks to regain her family honor. She challenges Master Yip and while she tests him and defeats him, she sees something in Master Yip that is not exactly love, but an understanding of the foundation of martial arts. She ultimately begins to show respect for him.

From here, the film delves into the fall of Foshan in October of 1938, when the Japanese takeover Yip’s family mansion. This causes Yip and his family, along with many people at the time, to live in poverty. Despite his struggles, Yip does overcome all obstacles while it is soon revealed that Ma San, in an effort to get out of the terrible life, has allied himself with the Japanese, causing friction between elder master and student.

This may seem somewhat confusing at first, but the film is not another biopic of the Wing Chun grandmaster famous for teaching the legendary Bruce Lee. The film focuses on both Yip Man and his respect for the martial arts, notably the martial arts of Lady Er. Both Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Zhang Ziyi give out excellent performances as the respectful rivals. Yip is seen as a man of virtue while Er is a woman of pride, who will sacrifice everything to bring honor to her family and her family’s martial arts.

Wong complements the drama and the action very well in the film. It is clear that not only does he bring a more solid approach to the action scenes, unlike his last attempt at a martial arts film (ASHES OF TIME (1994)), but shows a piece of history that occurs, notably the fall of Foshan in 1938. While Wilson Yip did this with his IP MAN movie in 2008, Wong brings a more artistic style that empowers the people of China much like Yip’s did in a more action-flavored style.

In charge of the action in the film is the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping. The action is some of Yuen’s best work to date, showcasing a variety of martial arts styles that represent Chinese kung fu. Aside from Wing Chun, we get to see Bagua, Hsing-I, Hung Kuen, and various other forms. Leung spent much time training for the film, even breaking his arm while training, but he looks like an actual master here. Zhang Ziyi impresses in the action department using a style that looks to be Bagua combined with Hsing-I and other forms. Her best fight comes against Max Zhang at a train station, where she must bring pride to her family after an incident forces her to seek revenge.

THE GRANDMASTER is definitely a great film from Wong Kar-Wai. It is more than about Grandmaster Yip Man, but the spirit and respect of martial arts as a whole in times of both peace and turmoil. Highly recommended but it is best to see the uncut version from Hong Kong as there is a U.S. version which trims about fifteen minutes.

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  • John Firth

    Nice to see a different approach, given the plethora of Yip Man movies recently. Also nice to hear the action scenes aren’t like Ashes of Time. Awesome film, but they could have used anyone to choreograph them, given the bizarre way they were put on screen. They had Sammo and pretty much wasted him!

  • Bruce

    Are these recent films about Yip Man re-writing history to leave a more favorable impression of communist China? I seem to recall from an article in Black Belt Magazine in the early 80s William Cheung stating that Yip Man left China for Hong Kong due to problems with Mao’s communist regime (same reason Jackie Chan’s father left China for Hong Kong), but in these bio pics that’s not mentioned at all.

  • GenghisQuan

    The most notable thing about this film is the utter lack of character development from – well, everyone, along with directoral shilling of this version of Yip Man as this super good heroic guy. Apparently we are to believe that the sole qualification for becoming the leader of all China’s kung fu clans is the ability to answer a single interview question. Shoot, interviewing for a job out of college was harder than that. Show, not tell. This is a very basic element of writing. I thought Wong Kar Wai was supposed to be some kind of super awesome director or something?

    Also, supposedly Wong Kar Wai wanted to pay “homage” to that era of martial artists. Apparently that era was defined by people clinging pigheadedly to tradition even if the traditions are downright harmful to the survival of their schools. seriously, a rule that says you cannot pass on your martial arts if you choose to avenge your father? really? artificial drama, anyone?

    There’s been 5 films about Ip Man from various directors so far, and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 1 will forever be the holy grail, simply due to the characterization and the character development and the care they took in choreography. You got the notion that Yen’s Ip Man just kinda skated through life until the Japanese occupation which taught him hard lessons about why one fights, along with character development for his wife and even that policeman guy. Wong Kar Wai’s Ip Man starts off as an entitled rich boy who just happens to be good at kung fu and he ends the movie as that same rich boy who just happens to be good at kung fu.

    Also slo-mo is terrible because you get zero idea of how good the actors’ kung fu actually is. Anyone can fight well when you get slow motion and camera tricks and CGI editing into the mix; you want to show some authenticity, get rid of the stupid Matrix bullet-time.

  • John Firth

    Sadly unsurprising, given China’s notorious censors.

  • Truth Powell

    Amazing film. Its like ‘In The Mood For Love’ and ’2046′ but with kung fu. However I think The Grandmasters(plural) would have been a more fitting title as it is about so much more than just Ip Man.

  • Truth Powell

    lol @ Wilson Yip’s Ip Man strong point being its’ characterization.
    I love the movie too but c’mon.

  • dragonmc

    who is the MASTER????

  • Wayne Crear

    This was not a good movie in my opinion. Granted they are beating the Ip Man thing to the ground so hopefully after Anthony Wong’s Ip Man will put this to rest. This one had too many slow mo shots for my taste and Tony Leung is miscast as Ip Man. Yes he can act and he is an OK martial arts actor but they would of been better with someone who has better action presence.