CHINESE FOLK HERO Wong Fei-hung has been featured in almost 100 movies, played by everyone from Jackie Chan in Drunken Master II to Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China. That's a lot of movies about one dude, but it might not be long until somebody catches up: Wong Kar-wai's latest, The Grandmaster, focuses on Ip Man, the legendary teacher of wing chun kung fu. Wong Kar-wai's film joins two other movies glorifying Ip (2008's Ip Man and 2010's Ip Man 2, both starring Donnie Yen), along with a few other films and TV series. If things keep up, movies about Ip will become their own genre.
The Grandmaster will likely remain a highlight. Even in the form in which it's being released in America—with chunks edited out, and title cards to help slack-jawed Americans understand the story—it's pretty cool. Spanning almost two decades and starring Tony Leung as Ip and Ziyi Zhang as his (fictional) love interest Gong Er, The Grandmaster works best during its most personal moments—playing to Wong Kar-wai's strengths, Leung and Zhang offer a surprisingly intense romance, and Wong is happy to shoot it with mythic opulence and heavy melancholy.
That isn't to say Wong goes easy on the action: Along with action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (the guy to thank for the kung fu in The Matrix, Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the timeless Jet Li/DMX classic Cradle 2 the Grave), Wong mounts some fantastic fight sequences, particularly one in which Leung unleashes superheroic damage in pounding rain, and another with Zhang, all snow and strategy and barely contained rage.
As good as it is, this Grandmaster feels straightforward and segmented—neither of which are traits one usually associates with Wong Kar-wai's best stuff, be it Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, or 2046. Having seen only the American edit, I can't say if Wong's original cut solves those problems. If only, in this modern era, there was some way to use a computational device—along with some sort of online network, perhaps?—to track down the original version. If only.