THE BLOG
08/12/2013 07:00 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

Once Upon a Time in Kung Fu

Wong Kar Wai tells the story of Bruce Lee's Master Ip Man

There's a Chinese saying that, when you drink the water, you should remember the place from where it flows.

Following this principle, The Grandmaster reveals the legend that lies behind martial arts movie icon Bruce Lee. Visionary filmmaker Wong Kar-wai's new masterwork combines luminous lensmanship and stunning stylized action scenes to tell the story of Lee's teacher, Ip Man.

Ip Man was a master of Wing Chun kung fu, a unique form of close range combat perfected in the southern Chinese city of Fatshan. Ip was born there in 1893, and, at the age of 13, began his Wing Chun training under his teacher, Chan Wah-shun.

Chinese martial arts are generally divided into Northern and Southern styles, the Northern focusing on long range jumping and kicking techniques, the Southern on powerful stances and hand techniques. Wing Chun is now the most famous of the Southern styles, and was devised by a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui. Ng sought to create a fighting system that would allow a smaller exponent to become an effective martial artist in the shortest time. She taught her new system to a young girl, Yim Wing Chun, from whom the art derives its name.

The Wing Chun style that Ip Man mastered consists of three "empty hand" forms (Sil Lim Tao/Little Idea Way, Chum Kiu/Seeking the Bridge and Biu Jee/Darting Fingers), two weapons (the long pole and the short swords) and the art's famous wooden training dummy.

Ip Man worked as a policeman in Fatshan until 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party came to power. He then moved to Hong Kong, bringing the art of Wing Chun with him. Ip made his name defeating various challengers from other martial arts styles. It was Ip Man's fame as a true martial arts master that attracted the attention of the young Bruce Lee, who became one of his most dedicated disciples.

Happily, Grandmaster Ip lived to see his most famous student's success. By the time the Wing Chun legend passed away on the December 2, 1972, Bruce Lee was already established as the king of kung fu cinema. During his years in Hong Kong, Ip Man had taken on many students, including his own sons, Ip Chun and Ip Ching, who carried the legacy of Wing Chun forward after the master's passing.

In 1997, while shooting his film Happy Together in Argentina, director Wong Kar-wai happened to see a magazine cover featuring Bruce Lee. Struck by the way this Chinese martial arts icon still fascinated worldwide audiences, Wong started to research this phenomenon. His studies brought him to some black-and-white footage of an ailing Ip Man being filmed, just prior to his death, demonstrating Wing Chun so as to leave a testament of his art. This image stayed with Wong, who then spent many years traveling China learning about Wing Chun and the many other forms of kung fu, developing the film that would become The Grandmaster.

In The Grandmaster, Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Hero) is forced to fight a match with the lovely Gong (Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the daughter of a rival kung fu expert. In the years that follow this encounter, Ip Man must survive the challenges of post-WWII Hong Kong; Gong has to fight to avenge her father's death. Though they can never be together, a deep bond develops between the two kung fu experts, one that leads Ip to reevaluate his life and art.

The Grandmaster combines the lyrical images and effortless romanticism of Wong Kar-wai's earlier films with the magnificent martial arts choreography of Yuen Wo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix).

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