12/02/2014 07:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Wong Kar-Wai's 'The Grandmaster' Pays Tribute to Bruce Lee's Teacher Ip Man


Nothing beats Wong Kar-Wai's stylized cinematic flair, and he punches his characteristic nostalgic imprint on the world of martial arts in his latest theatrical release, The Grandmaster. Opening with a gorgeous choreographed fight scene between two schools of martial arts from the north and south of China, romanticized with a light drizzle and aerial shots of fists flying and roundhouse kicks, the tone is set for an action film infused with the beauty of Kung Fu by slowing down the frames.

Centered on the story of Ip Man, the legendary martial arts master from southern China, the plot takes us back to the 1930s before the Japanese invasion of China. Vintage China is a specialty of Wong's where women wear their demure qipaos and opium smoke wafts upward in the air. Zhang Ziyi and Tony Chiu Wai Leung star in this mini epic of how Ip Man popularized the Wing Chun branch of Kung Fu. Eventually, he taught Bruce Lee when Ip Man lived in Hong Kong following the Sino-Japanese War. Lately, there have been a series of films and television series paying tribute to Ip Man whose grave in Hong Kong is still greatly revered. The film takes liberties with the biographical details of Ip Man, but highlights the starvation and family upheaval that affected millions in China in that period of time.

Nominated for two 2014 Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (Phillipe Le Sourd) and Best Costume Design (William Chang Suk Ping), the movie did well in the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Zhang Ziyi, who first hit the blockbuster screen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has developed from young muse to a mesmerizing actress who can do martial arts and emote through the deep wells of her soul. Here she plays a dutiful daughter who is quite the grandmaster herself but vows to avenge her father through chastity and a promise never to teach martial arts.

It's a dazzling film in the genre of martial arts. Wong Kar-Wai's take on the self-defense world is no disappointment as he adds his artistic eye to the perspective that martial art isn't just about violence. It's about art -- the art of movement. There are also philosophical debates, which are sometimes as powerful as a well-directed punch. In the climatic fight between Zhang and Leung in a brothel, the challenge of their fight rests on the premise that the first person to break any decor is the loser. Another duel is more of a combative dance not to break a bao, or bun, in one fighter's hand. Wong is admirable to include these graceful aspects of martial arts that many people don't realize is as essential as a good, defensive block.

The beauty of Kung Fu as a tribute to Ip Man is captured in the stylistic intonations of Wong Kar- Wai's The Grandmaster. From the director of In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express, it's exciting Wong Kar-Wai has lent his lens to the world of Kung Fu. For newbies, The Grandmaster may be a perfect induction to martial arts and Wong Kar-Wai's work. For his fans, The Grandmaster is an essential viewing in the Wong Kar-Wai anthology.