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Movie Review — ‘The Grandmaster’ a stylish, evocative martial-arts tale

For years, there’s been a sure-fire way to sound like a film snob without actually putting in the effort: Tell anyone who asks that your favorite director is Wong Kar Wai.

The Hong Kong legend is just famous enough for mainstream moviegoers to vaguely, kinda-sorta recognize without having to worry that they’ll follow up by talking about his films. Odds are, they haven’t seen any of them either.

That’s about to change now that Wong’s “The Grandmaster” is hitting multiplexes.

The film tells the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung), who took the Wing Chun style of kung fu that had only been accessible to China’s wealthy and brought it to the Hong Kong masses, including a young Bruce Lee.

It’s a stylish, evocative tale that’s as much a look at the cultural and political upheaval in early 20th century China as it is the story of Ip. Even when it’s in its biopic stages, “The Grandmaster” is nearly as concerned with Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the heir to grandmaster Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang) and Ip’s unrequited love interest.

That’s plenty to take in, even before you consider it’s a Mandarin-language movie with English subtitles. And the fact that most of its characters are introduced with a graphic near the top of the screen displaying their name and preferred style of martial art. And that’s before you even get to all the action in the space between the graphics and the subtitles. If nothing else, your eyes are guaranteed to get a workout.

Even with all that, though, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s something missing. That’s largely because there is. Twenty-two minutes of something, to be exact, the amount of footage that was excised from “The Grandmaster” for its U.S. release.

That may be the root of the movie’s disjointed feeling. But part of that sense of confusion is structural, as “The Grandmaster” starts off as though it’s building to an entirely different film.

In 1936, China’s northern and southern provinces are increasingly at odds. When northern grandmaster Gong Baosen decides to step down, he heads south on a farewell tour. As part of his goodbye, he invites the southern provinces to name a challenger to face off against his successor, the overagressive Ma San (Zhang Jin).

In the eyes of many, Ip lacks the stature to represent all of southern China. Even his style, Wing Chun, is derided as a three-trick pony. So various masters line up to try to best him using the disciplines he may encounter.

One by one they challenge him inside the gorgeous, golden-walled Republic House brothel, which has become a sort of social club for martial artists. Ip passes each test with subdued grace on the way to what should be a stirring showdown with Ma San.

Except it never happens.

The Japanese intervene, occupying Ip’s native Foshan for eight years and taking away everything, including two of his daughters, eventually causing him to live in exile in Hong Kong.

Anyone coming to “The Grandmaster” in search of the visceral impact of last year’s absurdly gory “The Man with the Iron Fists” or the wall-to-wall brawl of “The Raid: Redemption” likely will leave disappointed. What Wong, a grandmaster in his own right, has crafted isn’t so much an artsy martial arts movie a la “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as it is an art-house movie that happens to be about kung fu.

That doesn’t mean there’s a lack of fight scenes, gloriously choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, who worked with Zhang on “Crouching Tiger.”

From the dapper Ip’s opening battle in a downpour to Gong Er’s confrontation with Ma San amid dancing snowflakes, Wong relishes precipitation the way John Woo loves doves.

Together, they’ve crafted scenes, operatic at times, that showcase the inherent beauty of kung fu without relying on all-too-obvious wirework.

Leung brings a reserved coolness to the role of Ip, while Zhang is nearly as elegant as her fighting skills.

So many of the other performances, though, fail to register. Maybe it’s just the missing 22 minutes, but even with the introductory graphics, there’s a distinct “Who’s that guy? Have we seen him before?” bewilderment throughout “The Grandmaster.”

Thankfully, there’s Gong Er’s guardian, Jiang (Shang Tielong), who’s never seen without his fur hat and a monkey on his shoulder.

Not only do they render him easily identifiable, solving one of “The Grandmaster’s” biggest challenges, let’s be honest: Everything’s better with a dude in a fur hat and a monkey on his shoulder.

— Christopher Lawrence is the movie critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com

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