By Joseph McAleer
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Romance and kung-fu fighting may seem like incompatible film ingredients. But in "The Grandmaster" (Weinstein), these unlikely elements meld into the lush and lyrical re-creation of a neglected era of recent Chinese history.
Director Wong Kar Wai ("My Blueberry Nights"), who also wrote the screenplay, recounts the true story of the development of the martial arts in early 20th-century China. He offers up the expected, namely, highly stylized fights in slow motion. But, happily, he also presents viewers with more surprising sights: lingering tight close-ups of facial expressions, a raindrop, a flower blossom.
The result is an arty, immersive experience resurrecting a lost world where honor, family and tradition were sacrosanct.
In 1930s China, the nation was divided regarding the practice of the martial arts. In the south, Ip Man (Tony Leung) claimed supremacy as the "grandmaster" of the "Wing Chun" style of kung fu, which focuses on proper stance and the skillful use of poles and swords.
Ip Man sums up kung fu in two words: horizontal and vertical. "If you’re wrong, you’ll be left lying down. If you’re right, you’re left standing — and only the ones who stand have the right to talk."
Standing tall in the north, where jumping and kicking are the norm, is grandmaster Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang). Before retirement he decides to challenge Ip Man in one last duel (held in the local brothel, which masquerades as a fight club). Gong Baosen loses, much to the humiliation of his daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), a fierce fighter herself.
Gong Er is ambitious, and a potential contender for grandmaster status, were it not for her gender and the rigid tradition that stands in her way.
Even that doesn’t stop Gong Er from heading south to challenge Ip Man so that she can restore her father’s honor. That’s when the sparks really fly. Their intense battle — akin to a mildly erotic aerial ballet — is decided only when someone breaks a piece of furniture. When Ip Man lands hard and snaps a stair, he concedes defeat — but not his heart.
Their love is not consummated — Ip Man is happily married — but a strong bond of mutual respect and admiration is forged.
Time marches on, followed by the Japanese invaders, and then the communists. As their respective worlds crumble, Ip Man and Gong Er face different challenges for survival. Eventually, he becomes a world-renowned teacher of kung fu, and secures his place in history by acquiring a young student of unusual promise by the name of Bruce Lee.
In Chinese. Subtitles.
The film contains intense but largely bloodless martial arts fighting, brief drug use, a prostitution theme and some rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.