Brawlroom dancing with Tony and Ziyi

CHINA - The original title for this film - The Grandmasters - speaks of more than one gongfu exponent.

Here's why: Wing Chun legend Ip Man (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai), the person you would've thought The Grandmaster (in the singular) is all about, becomes a peripheral figure in the later half of the movie as Zhang Ziyi's character, Gong Er, an ill-fated grandmistress of gongfu, takes centre stage.

Director Wong Kar Wai's tale, based on historical figures, begins in the 1930s, a turbulent time with China on the brink of a Japanese invasion and the Chinese martial-arts society clamouring for a leader to unite the fighting schools of the North and South.

With its sumptuous sets and typical WKW-style close-ups, the film has Wong's usual standard of high visual quality.

Oh, how the raindrops fall in artistic, slo-mo fashion onto Ip Man's hat in battle.

And it's easy to appreciate the balletic close-contact combat between Ip Man and Gong Er.

Those fight scenes - with Leung showing he's in The Mood For Bouts after reportedly three years of real training - are such fluid exertions of grace and power that Wong seems to have reinvented the genre into a new art form called Brawlroom Dancing.

Leung tries his best to express stoic, honourable purpose silently in his Ip Man. As the best gongfu exponent of the land, Ip Man shows, after winning challenges over various opponents, that he is the worthy successor to a retiring martial-arts master who's ready to pass on the mantle of grandmaster.

"From now on, you will be challenged at every step," Ip Man is warned, whetting your appetite for some Donnie Yen-esque fights to come. But this is Wong Kar Wai, arthouse-auteur, in charge.

His trade is in lovers, not fighters. So, he turns his eye to Zhang's Gong Er, a creature of pathos who is caught between defending her father's honour against a vicious, traitorous usurper, and curtailing her feelings for the married Ip Man (whose wife is played by gorgeous South Korean actress Song Hye Gyo).

Against the usurper, Gong Er must take a vow of self-sacrifice to confront him. It is with her that we see melancholy and buried regret, a Wong staple. It marks a return to great acting for Zhang.

In the end, what Wong is trying to communicate is that in the orderly universe of gongfu, legacy, duty and mastery are counters to any personal yearning.

When it comes to telling the story of gongfu in China - which one assumes would be filled with martial-arts scenes - Wong's version is, at times, pathologically confusing. But, as it is so very beautiful to look at, it is worth watching.


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