The next winning kung fu movie formula from HK will have to be an Ip Man vs Wong Fei Hong epic. The Ip Man story has been told too many times already and it's time to let the imagination do what it will with the characters left behind by these two martial arts greats -- the latter having been forgotten for quite a while and could be begging for a resurrection anytime soon.
In The Grandmaster, Wong Kar Wai's retelling of the Ip Man story, the intention seems more to document than dramatize the major events in Master Ip's life. The lead character, played by Stony Leung, carries the same stoic, long-suffering face throughout the movie. Not sure what he has to suffer since his wife, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), does the major fighting for lost family honour and such while he goes about sampling the skills of the other fighting schools he is neighbours with.
I suppose any lesser man would be pissed that his wife left him to go fight another man to the death, but not Ip Man. His face says 'a woman's gotta do what a woman's gotta do' and on the odd occasions that he meets up with her again their interaction remains politely cordial, though I suppose the audience is probably meant to assume that the poor man is all torn up inside. Really.
The cinematography is just beautiful, with lots of slow-mo water splash; drip; ripple and reflect effects. The fight scenes are stunningly choreographed with lots of precision moves in both many-on-one and one-one-one battles, though often the killing blows happen so quickly we miss them completely and next thing you know, someone's dead or dying for no apparent reason.
Dialogue is poetic. Something like, 'That bread in your hand is the entire world to me' could mean 'You've already lost, but you don't know it yet' Or, 'The night is dark, but the nightingale sings through till sunrise' could mean, 'I'm a'gonna rip your face off!' (not actual quoted dialogue, but just to illustrate the point). Sometimes, you wish they would talk like normal people.
There were Hollywood influences to a couple of scenes: the disciple banishment scene from Kung Fu Panda, and Spidey vs Sandman vs speeding train scene in Spider-Man 3... or maybe I was desperately looking for identifiable points of reference to keep from losing the coherence of the plotline, which was confusing with all the flashbacks and flash-forwards and long periods of nothing happening. That kind of story-telling needs a deft hand, and this one was no Cloud Atlas.
Perhaps I had my expectations too high for thinking a kung fu fest to be all action, but I was somewhat disappointed to get a philosophical commentary on the nature of mastery instead (which, I grant, IS an important learning point... but it just wasn't what I was looking for here). In my book, this movie rates four Zs.