The Grandmaster is set against chaotic 1930s China. Wong Kar Wai’s latest focuses on the life of legendary kung-fu teacher of Bruce Lee, Ip Man, and tells of events that intersect the lives of great kung-fu masters such as Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) and Man Sen (Jin Zhang) in a changing world where not every person is left standing, but kung-fu endures.

Fundamentally, this movie is a mash-up of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time and the stylistics of Joseph von Sternberg, developed around themes of oppositions: North/South; Mandarin and Cantonese cultures; light and shadow; concealment and unmasking. These forces are particularly embodied in the paths that Ip Man and Gong Er take in their lives.

Many characters are introduced initially making things a little confusing up front, but the performances are stellar. Above all else, however, this movie belongs to its leading man, the elegant Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who brings dignity and grace to both dialogue and battle such that he totally radiates the full gravitas of the mythic Ip Man.

Kung-fu films are loved for their fight sequences. Action for action’s sake is never that interesting, but the battles here show us different facets of characterization, executed more as ballet than crushing demonstrations.

However, this film is missing greater emotion, which results in a shallowness to the film. Kar Wai is known for his sentiment, but here it serves the parallel story of Ip Man and the evolution of China’s nationhood, not his relationship with Gong Er. The film does give us a great battle between the kung-fu flirters, establishing their bond, but the story diminishes and shifts to other plotlines.

Is The Grandmaster opening weekend worthy?

Based on Wong Kar Wai’s resumé alone, it is worth seeing, and if you enjoy kung-fu film in general, it’s a no-brainer for you to catch the very next screening of this gorgeous film. If you don’t like the genre or subtitles, it’s a pass.

The Grandmaster opens August 23, 2013 at Varsity Cinema at Cineplex Odeon Varsity and VIP Cinemas. Check their website for showtimes and details.

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