Wong kar-wai's movie, which opens this year's Berlin film festival, is less Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and much more a study of ideas and textures, writes Andrew Pulver in The Guardian:
There's been quite a bit of radio silence from Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, right; since 2007, in fact, and his epically self-indulgent American-set road movie My Blueberry Nights.
Now he's back with, of all things a kung-fu movie: one that tells the story of Ip Man, the legendary martial artist who has a pop-culture claim to fame as one of Bruce Lee's teachers in the 1950s.
Wong, however, with his predilection for woozy atmospherics, riper-than-ripe visual tropes, and shimmering decorative surface, has delivered a far from conventional example of the genre. Ip Man has already been celebrated fairly recently by a couple of straight ahead biopics with Donnie Chen; all the more reason, perhaps, for Wong to be allowed to take his habitually oblique approach.
His Ip is played impassively – the point of rigor mortis, virtually – by Wong's regular collaborator Tony Leung, as a modest champion of "southern" martial artists against in their struggle for technical supremacy with the "northerners". Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), a northerner, is the retiring grandmaster; he nominates Ip to take his place. Occupying at least as much screen time as Ip is Gong's daughter, Gong Er: this is the luminous Zhang Ziyi, who supplies the quivering, pulsating emotions conspicuously lacking in him.
In truth, though Ip Man and Gong Er have considerable fellow-feeling; their stories don't entwine all that much: such is the way of the historical period, savagely interrupted by invasion and war. There's an interesting contrast between the technical violence of the kung fu contests, which although showy and spectacular, don't seem to result in much in the way of crippling injury, and the gouts of deep scarlet blood associated with the cruelties of the Japanese occupation in the 1930s.
Leung's downbeat persona is also calibrated to carry Wong's particular take on the martial arts film: this is about philosophy and aesthetics as much as head-kicking. There's certainly plenty of action, orchestrated by fight-movie maestro Yuen Woo-ping, of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger renown, but Wong slathers it with applied stylistic devices: thundering rain, splintering glass, a buttery sepia colour wash and a rather odd repeated motif of sliding slippered feet. In fact, the presence of both Zhang and Yuen force a comparison – and underscore the difference – with Ang Lee's breakout martial arts hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's fair to say that The Grandmaster possesses nothing like the bounding, light-on-its-feet energy of Lee's film; Wong's film is much more a study of ideas and textures, designed to ravish the senses.