“The Grandmaster” is a deliriously beautiful martial-arts saga, a mix of exuberant violence and restrained eroticism. Meticulously directed by art-house master Wong Kar-wai (“In the Mood for Love,” “2046”), its fluid, bruising, occasionally lethal battles are choreographed like ballet romance.
The prologue, filmed in a nighttime rainstorm, is a one-against-many contest in which fighting legend Ip Man (Tony Leung) scatters his assailants like a human typhoon. With a color palette of black clothing and inky shadows, and ultra-slow-motion shots that isolate individual water droplets in flight, the combat becomes an exercise in elegant abstraction. There are shattering windows and careening bodies for dramatic oomph — the action is so vivid it threatens to burst the frame — yet the sequence wows you on an elevated level.
The famously meticulous Wong spent a decade preparing for this film and three years in production. It shows. Even if you don’t give a fig for roundhouse kicks, this is an unmissable film, and intoxicating exercise in punch-drunk love.
Ip, the product of a well-to-do family who devoted his life to the martial art of wing chun, survived the Japanese occupation and escaped the Communist revolution by relocating to Hong Kong. In later years Ip taught the young Bruce Lee, a distinction that brought him his greatest measure of Western fame.
He’s often been portrayed in films, usually as a figure of Chinese patriotism. Wong, whose great theme is soulful, unrequited love, recruits the historical character to his own favorite cause. He photographs Leung’s pensive face with sensuous expressions of romantic melancholy.
The film opens in 1936, with Ip entering middle age — the end of his life’s springtime, as he puts it in a typically philosophical voice-over. A revered martial-arts virtuoso, he’s also a dutiful but distant family man whose wife and children have little emotional claim on him. He’s recruited by northern grandmaster Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang) to represent the southern fighting style in an all-China conclave intended to heal rifts in a nation that is divided (and in its northern provinces, Japanese-occupied).
A veritable who’s-who of kung fu film notables portray Ip’s rivals. The sequences are extraordinary and startlingly beautiful, as is to be expected from legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (the “Matrix” trilogy, “Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”).
From the spectacular “fighting in the rain” opener, to wall-shaking brawls in an opulent Chinese brothel, to a thriller in which Ip duels against an adversary’s straight razor with mere metal chopsticks, the action is stunning. Wong repeatedly brings home his subjects’ prowess with fine details — a nail shocked loose from a wooden beam after a solid blow — rather than wrecking-ball exaggeration.
His approach to Ip’s romantic life is cannily understated, as well. The gorgeous Zhang Ziyi plays the northern grandmaster’s daughter, Gong Er, who violated tradition to train in martial arts as a girl. The pair’s sparring is as charged with seduction as any tango. Here is a woman who can understand Ip’s devotion to his calling. Fate seemingly made them for each other, then capriciously erected impassable barriers to keep them apart.
When Japanese officials pressure Ip to become a collaborator, he declares, “I’d rather starve than eat Japanese rice.” It’s a cruelly ironic line given his family’s eventual fate.
The story’s chronology blips ahead abruptly to Ip’s Hong Kong years. Wong’s international version has been cut by 20 minutes for its U.S. release, which may account for some of the choppiness. Then again, Wong makes character films rather than story films. When Ip and the still-beautiful Gong meet again, their lives enter a colder season. Wong’s films don’t conclude with fake Hollywood uplift but tell us that sorrow is part of life and we should bear it with dignity. Even if you can deflect every punch, love really hurts.