Wing chun this, Har­vey Scis­sorhands

Tony Le­ung is prop­erly enig­matic in this van­dalised biopic of the man who trained Bruce Lee, writes Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS -

THE GRAND­MAS­TER

★★★★ Di­rected by Wong Kar-wai. Star­ring Tony Le­ung, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Ben­shan, Song Hye-kyo, Wang Qingx­ian Club, IFI, Dublin, 108 min It’s been a while. Wong Kar-Wai’s Ip Man biopic went into pre-pro­duc­tion as long ago as 2008. Since then the project has been plagued by mis­for­tune.

Some set­backs were ac­ci­den­tal: lead­ing man Tony Le­ung broke his arm learn­ing the mar­tial arts that would al­low him to em­u­late the Wing Chun vir­tu­oso of the ti­tle. Other set­backs, such as this man­gled, dumbed-down cut pa­tro­n­is­ingly fash­ioned for the US mar­ket, were quite de­lib­er­ate.

Emerg­ing almost a year after the film was nom­i­nated for two Os­cars (cin­e­matog­ra­phy, cos­tume de­sign) and nearly two years since its Berlin premiere, this ver­sion of The Grand­mas­ter has been scan­dalously van­dalised by the We­in­stein Company. Scenes and episodes have dis­ap­peared to make way for un­nec­es­sary ex­plana­tory in­ter­ti­tles. Ma­jor char­ac­ters have been trun­cated into non-ex­is­tence: Chang Chen’s Ra­zor, a master of the Ba­ji­quan School, is in­tro­duced as noble an­tag­o­nist, then sel­dom seen again.

His­tor­i­cal con­text – the Sino-Ja­panese War, the clos­ing of the bor­der be­tween China and Hong Kong – is re­duced to

postage stamp snip­pets. Im­por­tant episodes from the sub­ject’s life – the death of his two daugh­ters from star­va­tion, the foun­da­tion of the school where Bruce Lee (among oth­ers) learned kung fu – are men­tioned in pass­ing, as if mak­ing small talk about the weather.

A mo­tif lifted from Once Upon a Time in Amer­ica plays. In common with that Ser­gio Leone film, far too much ma­te­rial has been sac­ri­ficed to make way for a love story be­tween Ip Man and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). Zhang, as ever, is a joy to watch, but she’s given far too much screen time in a film that is not, after all, a Gong Er biopic.

For all that, this is still a Wong kar-Wai film: a por­trait of one grand­mas­ter by another. Each tableaux is crafted like an ex­quis­ite wood cut­ting. Snow dances around strik­ing images. Ev­ery fight se­quence makes el­e­gant use of move­ment. Wire­work en­hances but doesn’t dom­i­nate in the man­ner of Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon. Wing Chun’s sig­na­ture moves – spade, pin and sheath – have sel­dom looked more beau­ti­ful.

Although we don’t learn as much as we might from watch­ing the Don­nie Yen Ip Man se­quence or Her­man Yau’s 2010 film, Le­ung’s enig­matic turn al­lows the sub­ject to re­tain all of his mys­tique. Per­haps that’s how it ought to be.

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