Wong Kar Wai makes a kung fu movie. What more do you need to know, really?
Dramatizing the life of the legendary Wing Chun master Ip Man, best known (read: only known) to Westerners as the man who taught Bruce Lee, The Grandmaster scurries through the biographical details and focuses on balletic fight scenes between Ip (played by Wong regular Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and his rivals, in particular the fictional Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), a woman Ip connects with only briefly, but who becomes – through Wong's romantic lens – the unfulfilled love of his life.
Wong has said that, whereas most kung fu movies center around revenge stories or good vs. evil sagas, The Grandmaster is about legacy. As such, it emphasizes the art in martial arts. You won't see any "spirit magic" nonsense here, and in fact I don't think anybody even perishes in the film's duels. But you will, of course, get plenty of Wong's signature visuals: textured close-ups, staggered slow motion shots, and stunning compositions.
This is Wong's second feature shot after he split with his cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and I miss Doyle's saturated, highly filmic look. Philippe Le Sourd's digital camerawork is impeccable, but it lacks its own unique voice. After this and the ill-fated My Blueberry Nights, it's become hard to define a "Wong Kar Wai Film" without Doyle. Like a late-period Hitchcock film without a Bernard Herrmann score, there's a bit of magic missing.
I should also point out that The Weinstein Company, The Grandmaster's stateside distributor, has, in classic Weinstein fashion, cut 22 character-related minutes from the film in order to get to the action (Wong reportedly oversaw the reedit himself) and also added a ton of explanatory title cards, introducing characters only seconds before the characters introduce themselves. (Imagine watching a movie where you see the words "Mark Tapio Kines, filmmaker" on the screen, then I show up and another character says "Mark Tapio Kines! Made any films lately?") The title cards are egregious and patronizing. Does Harvey Weinstein really think Wong's American audience is that stupid?
See the film anyway. The fight scenes are spectacular, Leung and Zhang ooze star power, and there is emotion and heartbreak. In short, despite the regretful meddling of "Harvey Scissorhands", Wong's visionary stature remains intact.