The Grandmaster review: wing chun this

Tony Leung is properly enigmatic in this vandalised bio-pic of Ip Man, the maestro who trained Bruce Lee

The Grandmaster
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Director: Wong Kar-wai
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen
Running Time: 1 hr 48 mins

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 inter- titles. 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.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic