To be sure, there has never been a more beautiful kung fu movie than Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster: rigorously choreographed fight scenes captured in slow motion, bathed in golden light, in silvery curtains of rain; noirish tableaus crosshatched in shadow, the faces of the men chiseled, stoic, the faces of the women porcelain-like, serene; interior spaces - palatial brothels, bustling saloons - rendered like paintings, while the landscapes of forest and shoreline are the stuff of David Lean.
But if you can make sense of this meticulously crafted chronicle of Ip Man, the real-life martial arts master credited with training kung fu legend Bruce Lee, well then, seven degrees of black belt for you!
As elliptical as it is lovely, The Grandmaster begins in 1930s Foshan and works its way, one elaborate Wing Chun fight sequence after another, to 1950s Hong Kong. As Ip Man, Tony Leung keeps a snappy fedora on his head and a stony expression beneath it. He takes his stance, pushes out his hands, and kicks, swirls, chops, and leaps, dispatching one oncomer after another.
Enter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), trained by her father, the retiring (but hardly shy) Master Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang). He has taught her the deadly "64 Hands" technique, and she and Ip Man face off, in more ways than one.
Twenty minutes or so longer in its initial Chinese and international release (there are rumors of a four-hour version, too), The Grandmaster may have suffered from overzealous editing - a compression of plot and relationships that makes tracking the narrative a chore. Or maybe not.
Wong Kar Wai is an expressionist master. A master of character - deep, rich, truthful character - especially in The Grandmaster, he is not.
The Grandmaster **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Wong Kar Wai. With Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Wang Qingxiang, and Chang Chen. In Mandarin with subtitles. Distributed by the Weinstein Company.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters