Harvey Weinstein has been the undisputed king of awards films for years now. In fact, Weinstein has gotten at least one of his films into the Best Picture category at the Oscars in each of the last six years now that Philomena scored a nomination last week. However, there is a newcomer on the block that is looking to usurp Weinstein as the “Oscar Whisperer”. That person is none other than Megan Ellison. Ellison only really came onto the Hollywood scene last year, but she already has three Best Picture nominations (Zero Dark Thirty, American Hustle and Her). You would think that these two producers would be too big to ever work with each other, and that is apparently the case now. However, before a rumored feud, they were able to together release The Grandmaster. With an incredible set of producers The Grandmaster would seemingly have a lot going for it, but any potential is completely wasted by a story that values visuals over any sort of narrative originality. Despite the Hong Kong version of the film being touted as a more impressive cut than the American version, it is hard to imagine any version of The Grandmaster being particularly good.
The Grandmaster follows the rise of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the martial expert who would one day go onto train Bruce Lee. Along the way he crosses paths with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who is trying to protect her family’s immaculate reputation. The film is directed by Wong Kar-wai (a famous Hong Kong auteur) and is written by Wong Kar-wai, Zou Jingzhi and Xu Haofeng.
Wong Kar-wai certainly brings a lot of visual style to this film, and that might be the film’s biggest problem. Wong Kar-wai does a really good job at capturing the visual style of Hong Kong martial arts. However, if this is an example of the best that the Hong Kong martial arts genre has to offer (and I had the same exact problem with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), then this is just a ridiculous and superfluous genre. Way too much emphasis is put on the action sequences at the expense of the narrative, and the action scenes defy logic at a rate that would make Michael Bay jealous. Even worse is that Wong Kar-wai loses control of the already crumbling narrative as he falls in love with the character of Gong Er. It’s great to see a strong female character on screen but the transition from focusing on Ip Man to completely losing sight of him for portions of the film just comes across as odd.
The cast as a whole is rather unimpressive too. The supporting cast is completely unmemorable, and Tony Leung struggles to make Ip Man interesting at all. However, Zhang Ziyi gives a riveting performance as Gong Er as she completely steals the show. The film would have been a lot better if it just stayed focused on her.
Obviously, I’m not a fan of the genre, but The Grandmaster is unremarkable in every aspect whether it is the neglected script or the over-indulgent visual style.