Only two movies have come close to wringing water out of these old tear ducts of mine this year. Both featured actresses in performances that were so luminous that I considered myself lucky to be alive to enjoy them.
One was by Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine," Woody Allen's best film in three decades. The other belonged to Ziyi Zhang in Wong Kar-wai's meditative martial arts biopic "The Grandmaster."
3 stars = Good
Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang.
PG-13 for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language.
As Gong Er, a doctor who practices "64 Hands," a lethal form of martial arts, she isn't even the movie's star. That honor belongs to Tony Leung, who is equally compelling and distinguished as Ip Man, the master of the Wing Chun school of Kung Fu and the Grandmaster of the title.
Ip Man is a name that is familiar to fans of Bruce Lee. He was that martial arts master's teacher in Hong Kong and the one credited with steering him from the path of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s.
In the past decade, Ip Man has become something of a cottage industry in China. He's the focus of dueling multipart movie biographies and TV shows, with each iteration of his life on the big screen taking him further down the road into the same legendary fog that engulfed his most famous student.
Now Ip Man (also known as Yip Man) is a mythological figure whose system of self-defense was considered so perfect that it was impossible for friend or foe to catch him in a moment where he was anything less than poised.
Certainly as portrayed in "The Grandmaster" by Mr. Leung, Ip Man is the epitome of dignified stoicism but also happens to be capable of explosive action at a moment's notice. His is a life that spans the indolent last days of the Qing Dynasty to the brutal Japanese occupation of China to self-exile in Hong Kong in the '50s after disasters have decimated his family.
The film opens with the wealthy but disciplined Ip Man fighting off a contingent of attackers in the rain. He wears a hat and a full-length coat that barely ruffles during the fight he dominates easily. It is a brutal but beautiful set piece that alternates between balletic and bombastic thanks to the film's director of photography, Philippe Le Sourd.
Audiences are soon escorted into a world of ceremonial challenges and elaborate duels between rival martial arts schools from the northern and southern regions of China. Ip Man, who is considered first among equals of the martial arts masters of southern China is soon drawn into a battle with the visiting Grandmaster Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang) and his beautiful but deadly daughter, Gong Er.
It is during his epic battle with Gong Er that Ip Man, against his will, discovers that he cares deeply for his opponent. It is just enough forbidden passion to distract him from the fight as Gong Er, who has never been defeated, ekes out a win over the unbeatable Ip Man.
Their love is mutual but unspoken. Gong Er returns to the north to her medical practice while Ip Man stays within the sanctity of his marriage. Although they continue to long for each other for more than a decade, Ip Man and Gong Er are too constrained by marriage vows, a promise to the gods and their own integrity to act on their feelings.
Meanwhile, the world of courtly martial arts battles and unbendable honor gives way to Japanese occupation and shocking collaborations. Not only must Ip Man contend with poverty for the first time in his life, he has to deal with a tragedy that visits his home.
Still, it is all but inevitable that Gong Er and Ip Man would meet again, this time in Hong Kong. The formality that accompanies their unconsummated passion is almost too much to bear. The film's elaborate fight scenes choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping come almost as a relief at that point.
In the end, the story, which takes incredible liberties with the facts of Ip Man's life, is more poetic revery than a traditional biopic. This doesn't detract one iota from the movie's power. It is possible to ignore the subtitles and come away with the emotional gist of the movie. Director Wong Kar-wai has outdone himself with a movie that continues to unfurl in one's head long after the credits have rolled.
With English subtitles. Opens today at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631; Twitter: TonyNormanPG.