THE GRANDMASTER (PG13)

125 minutes/In Cinemas now/★★★★☆

The story: This is Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai’s long-in-the-making biopic of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man, best known as the teacher of martial arts superstar Bruce Lee.

It traces the life of Ip (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) from his ascent in the world of martial arts in Foshan, Guangdong province, to his destitution during the Japanese invasion and, eventually, his settling down in Hong Kong to teach his skills.

He crosses paths with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), a highly skilled martial artist seeking vengeance for her father’s death.

Wong Kar Wai pulls no punches in the opening fight scene. As rain pours down, Ip Man takes on a small army of opponents and dispatches them gracefully.

The scene is beautifully lit and shot as the camera picks up on details, such as water splashes, and also conveys the vividness of the fight. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (Seven Pounds, 2008) is a good fit for Wong’s aesthetic sense.

Movie Review: The Grandmaster
Photo: Shaw Organisation

As Ip, Leung brings with him a softness and fluidity to the hand-to-hand combat that captures the Wing Chun essence of “yi rou ke gang”, or overcoming strength with softness.

The contrast is greater here compared to Donnie Yen’s more stoic and macho version of the same character in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010).

Another showpiece sequence has Gong Er duelling with her sworn enemy Ma San (a compelling Zhang Jin) on a station platform as a train thrillingly rushes past them.

The action scenes are far more satisfactory than the murky who-turned-the-lights-out fights in Wong’s previous martial arts flick, Ashes Of Time (1994).

Still, there is no mistaking The Grandmaster for a run-of-the-mill gongfu flick.

Both Wilson Yip’s movies and Herman Yau’s Ip Man: The Legend Is Born (2010) resort to lazy button-pushing as evil Japanese and Caucasian characters naturally push audiences to root for the hero. In The Grandmaster, the Japanese invasion which drives Ip to dire straits is almost incidental.

Instead, what we get are regret and repressed passion, familiar tropes in Wong’s past films.

The romantic drama In The Mood For Love (2000) had Leung and Maggie Cheung circling each other achingly as their feelings remained as tightly bound as her fabulous cheongsams.

The gay drama Happy Together (1997) is drenched in regret and longing as it charts the tempestuous relationship between Leung and Leslie Cheung.

As a character remarks in The Grandmaster, how boring life would be if there were no regrets.

Movie Review: The Grandmasters
Photo: The Grand Masters

Ip Man and Gong Er fight each other once and it is a remarkably intimate and sensuous exchange. It sparks off something between them which is left to simmer for a long while.

Leung and Zhang are repeat collaborators with Wong and it is easy to see why. When the director goes in for loving close-ups, Zhang’s expressive porcelain oval face and Leung’s wry smile and sympathetic eyes evocatively fill the screen in a way few other actors’ features can.

They are helped by the entrancingly literary dialogue, a treat to savour as they speak in poetic lines.

Sometimes, though, you wonder if Wong’s penchant for that perfectly composed shot gets in the way of the film. Once too often, a scene would end with a carefully put together tableaux, as if offering a snapshot of a particular character and a certain time.

Even more distracting is Taiwanese actor Chang Chen’s Yixiantian character. Gong meets him on a train and helps him to evade arrest but, in the end, he turns out to be a red herring. There is a slight, humorous payoff to his story arc, but it ends rather abruptly in a cul-de-sac.

While you may wonder what was left on the cutting room floor, it has to be said that Wong’s films take time to work their magic. The kinetic Chungking Express (1994) and In The Mood For Love rank among my favourite films. Not exactly instances of infatuation at first sight, each has sparked off an enduring love affair.

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on January 30, 2013. For similar stories, go tosph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.