Ip Man (or Yip Man), legendary Wing Chun master, was born in a wealthy family in Foshan, China in 1893. Having trained his art since he was 13 years old, Ip Man developed his Wing Chun technique to a high level of perfection, but while he did teach his style to friend, he wasn't interested in opening a martial arts school. This changed with the Chinese Civil War, when political reasons forced Ip Man to leave Foshan for good in 1949 and settle in Hong Kong. Living in poverty, Ip Man finally opened a Wing Chun school in Hong Kong (his students would include a very young Bruce Lee), that soon made his martial arts famous in the city, and later in the world. This status as grandmaster of Wing Chun, along the time period he lived through, have turned Ip Man into an almost mythical figure (similar to Wong Fei-hung), and his life has inspired numerous films beginning with "Yip Man" in 2008 (directed by Wilson Yip). That very same year Hongkonger director Wong Kar-wai announced his own film about Ip Man, but the project faced constant delays and couldn't see the light until 2013, when finally "Yi dai zong chi", "The Grandmaster" was released,.
The story in "Yi dai zong chi" begins in the first years of the decade of 1930s, when Ip Man (Tony Leung) is living a peaceful life in Foshan as a respected martial artist along his wife Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye-kyo). The grandmaster of the Northern region, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) arrives to Foshan announcing his retirement and the appointment of Ma San (Zhang Jin) as his heir. He is also looking for a heir in the Southern region: whomever can defeat him will be his heir. The Southern masters asks Ip Man to represent them, and he manages to defeat Gong Yutian, who now respects him as the winner. Gong Yutian's daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), decides to challenge Ip Man herself, as she pretends to recover her family's honor. After their duel, a deep friendship begins between them, a relationship that's interrupted by the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. During the war, Ip Man will face poverty and hunger in Foshan, while in the Northern region, a vindictive Ma San murders grandmaster Gong Yutian. As times are changing in Chine, a generation of masters of martial arts will try to survive.
While "Yi dai zong shi" begins apparently as a biopic of Wing Chun master Ip Man, the literal translation of its title, "Generation of master", is perhaps the best description of what it really is: a meditation about a whole generation in Chinese martial arts history. So, taking Ip Man as its starting point, the screenplay (written by Zou Jingzhi, Xu Haofeng and director Wong Kar-wai himself) gets into reflections of a more philosophical type regarding the Chinese Civil War, making a parallel with the expansion of martial arts through the country. Grandmaster Gong Yutian's dream of unification between Northern schools of martial arts and the Southern masters ends when political forces divide the country in the middle of wars, events that will divide the characters and force them to make decisions they may later regret. And this melancholic lament of regret, a lament of tragic loss (familiar themes in much of Wong Kar-wai's cinema) echoes through a story in which knowledge of martial arts is a precious heritage, and its perpetuity in memory, a matter of life and death.
In terms of style the film is also a journey through familiar terrains for Wong Kar-wai: there's poetry in the dialogs, an extremely beautiful work of cinematography (courtesy of Philippe Le Sourd) and a disjointed narrative. Unfortunately, this last aspect becomes problematic as in the attempt of capturing the spirit of a whole generation, Wong seems to ramble, leaving unexplainable plot holes and underdeveloped subplots (the character of "Razor" Yixiantian could be removed and nobody would even notice). Since the film lacks a solid structure, the movie feels incomplete. But "Yi dai zong shi" isn't merely a recollection of Wong Kar-wai's thematic obsessions, it's also a martial arts film, and in this aspect the remarkable fight coreographies staged by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping are a highlight of the film. Truly getting to the origins of the portrayed martial arts, Yuen manages to make a relatively faithful portrayal of the diverse styles employed by the masters, focusing not on fantastic exaggeration, but in the inherent beauty of the correct execution of a technique. This is certainly one of Yuen Woo-ping's best jobs.
Tony Leung, a familiar face in Wong Kar-wai's cinema, manages to truly get into the role of Ip Man, making him an arrogant yet disciplined man. Leung's Ip Man is a martial arts aesthete who knows he is fortunate, but that doesn't take advantage of his privileged position. Leung's work gets better as his character grows older, as the arrogance of youth gives place to wisdom and serenity after a life of hardships during the war. However, while Tony Leung makes an effective performance, it is really Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er who truly steals the show in "Yi Dai zong shi". As a woman obsessed with revenge to the point of sacrifice, Zhang Ziyi delivers one of her best performances ever, creating a character of complexity and beauty. With elegance and strong screen presence, Zhang Ziyi manages to express more with a single look than with the film's poetic dialogue. Finally, Chang Chen appears as "Razor" Yixiantian, character whose plot is sadly forgotten latter in the movie. The interesting things is that, in spite of that, Chang Chen manages to create a character with greater impact than Tony Leung's Ip Man.
Maybe the most remarkable aspect in Wong Kar-wai's film is the great beauty of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd's work, who manages to capture the melancholy of the romantic view of Wong Kar-wai on the time period in which the film is set, as well as the beauty of the portrayed martial arts. A perfect complement to choreographer Yuen Woo-ping's work, Le Sourd's cinematography enhances the style and technique with great aesthetic beauty. Quite appropriately for a story about characters that value technical proficiency above all things. However, it's unfortunate that the beauty of the cinematography and the excellence of the performances get lost in a narrative that at times seems to lose the direction where it's going. The stories of these masters, Ip Man, Gong Er and "Razor" Yixiantian are extremely interesting, but there's a moment where it seems that the movie decides to focus exclusively on Gong Er and forgets entirely the other two, which end up in a rushed manner. The sensation the film leaves is that for some reason, "Yi dai zong shi" is not a completed film, despite that there are three different cuts of the film.
Despite this big problem with its narrative, "Yi dai zong shi" is a movie of great visual beauty and impeccable cinematic technique. Wong Kar-wai manages to create a martial arts film that's reflexve and philosophical without sacrificing the genre's inherent spectacle. It would be unfair to expect a proper biography of Ip Man when what Wong Kar-wai pretends is to get into the memory of a bygone time: the end of Chinese Civil War. As famous filmmaker John Ford once stablished: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". Wong Kar-wai gets into the modern myths that are the old martial arts masters and finds a group of fascinate characters that struggle to survive in a world that seems to have left them behind. Unfortunately, "Yi dai zong shi" fails to become the great work it could had been.