The grandmaster in Wong Kar-Wai’s latest visual rhapsody is Ip Man (Tony Leung), a legend in the history of the martial arts, and not just for his involvement in the training of Bruce Lee. According to this episodic and nonfactual portrait, Ip Man was one of the first to see the big picture of the importance of Kung Fu to the cultural survival of China. It’s an epic topic that Wong’s sprawling yet intimate interpretation manages to convey—even while depicting a thwarted love affair set against the backdrop of China’s tragic upheavals during the first half of the 20th century. Though the film ultimately fails in its narrative ambitions, the route it takes is so gorgeous (cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd) and the fight scenes so artistic (by Yuen Woo-Ping) that it can almost be forgiven a commercialized final coda regarding Lee’s childhood in Hong Kong.
The film opens when Ip is 40, and one grandmaster out of many. He is nominated to represent the Kung Fu styles of the southern provinces against those of the north in a great tournament. While being honed by masters of other styles (other than his own unusual school of Wing Chun), the film presents a primer on the various and rarified forms that were collectively known as the Golden Age of Kung Fu. The filmmaking is suitably dazzling for these battles of sheer artistry, and the grandmaster’s opponents appropriately heroic. Yet Ip, whose mastery of Wing Chun philosophy is even greater than its explosive physicality, loses the tournament to a mere slip of a girl. She is Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of the grandmaster of the north and the sole heir to his devastating form of Baogen fighting. Their battle takes place along an ornate winding staircase that intensifies the sensual nature of the combat.
Yet their love is not to be, as longing is a Wong specialty, and this golden age coincides with the Japanese invasion. Ip is forced to flee to Hong Kong, and Gong dedicates herself to vengeance against her father’s traitorous adopted son. The doomed beauty of the Qing Dynasty interweaves with the sinister stylishness of colonial Hong Kong, while the cinematography subtly shifts between classicism and film noir. Unfortunately, the script is not as adept, and once in Hong Kong, it becomes more reminiscent of Wong’s aimless My Blueberry Nights than his acclaimed arthouse hit, In the Mood for Love.
Reportedly, the film had numerous editing quandaries, which is noticeable. However the sultry charisma of Leung and Zhang casts a spell that goes beyond the choppy plotting and pop-up characters. And if Ip Man remains little more than an enigma, he is at least an intensely cinematic one.