Rental Pick: Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013)


When I watched Ip Man earlier this Summer, someone recommended that I watch The Grandmaster, but unfortunately Netflix Streaming doesn’t have it. But thanks to my dear friend Michael from It Rains … You Get Wet for kindly lending me the dvd via mail. If you’re curious which version, it’s the Special Edition 2-Disc version in Chinese with English subtitles.

There are three things that appeal to me about The Grandmaster: Tony Leung Chiu Wai as a protagonist, Wong Kar Wai‘s direction and the story of Ip Man itself. Apparently it took the perfectionist director 10 years to bring this film to live, and from what I’ve seen, seems that most of it is spent on perfecting the visuals of the film. Now, I’m not being sarcastic here as the visuals truly is ah-mazing! My hubby said it’s as if every frame of this film is picture-frame worthy, and the opening sequence of Ip Man fighting a bunch of people in the rain is just glorious!


This is the first film of Wong Kar Wai that I’ve ever seen, as our plan to watch In The Mood For Love for our Movie Night a couple of years back fell through and I never got around to it since. So I later found out from his IMDb page of the Chinese director’s signature style, i.e. his frequent usage of time-lapse photography, quick freeze-frames in the middle of certain scenes, and the way his characters are often shown having a conversation mostly off-screen or with their faces shown in reflective surfaces, etc. The Grandmaster is certainly a VERY stylish film, there’s a meticulous attention paid down to the last detail which I find really fascinating. I mean, the martial arts master is wearing a white Fedora the entire time he’s fighting in the rain, and the gorgeous Ziyi Zhang’s never without a white flower in her hair even as she does her Kung Fu. If you like martial arts films, you’ll surely enjoy the fight scenes! Tony Leung reportedly trained pretty hard for a whole year in preparation for this role and it shows! He’s quite graceful in his moves, but I think that’s largely how the sequences were shot.


The thing is, as a character study, which is what I would expect here, the film is lacking a focused narrative. I feel that the strong visuals trumps storytelling and that seems as if it’s a deliberate move on the director’s part. I think it’s interesting that the story of Ip Man is intertwined with Gong Er’s (Zhang Ziyi), both in Foshan and later in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded their city. Their path crossed as Gong Er is seeking vengeance for the death of her father in the hand of her own family member who’s become a Japanese sympathizer. As intriguing as that story is, I struggled to follow the story with the choppy narrative and overwhelming visuals. There is a man named Razor (Chen Chang)that I haven’t got a clue what his relation was to the main characters, despite a fascinating introduction on the train. I had to read about it later to find out who he was. Perhaps this film is intended for people who are already familiar with Ip Man story? I’m not sure but I certainly knew less about the character than what I’ve learned from the 2008 Ip Man film.


That said, I’m still glad I watched it and got to know Kar Wai’s beautiful cinematic style. I love the minimalist dialog to contrast the rich and tremendous visuals. The lack of spoken words are more than made up by the subtle gestures and delicate glances, enhanced by the Zen-like charisma of Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi. I could watch both of these actors all day, they’re so mesmerizing! As I’m not as familiar with martial arts films, I’m afraid the metaphors and underlying messages might be lost on me [my brother who’s more into Kung Fu movies might appreciate this more], but it’s still worth a mention. Lastly, I was hoping to see Bruce Lee as he’s clearly Ip Man’s most famous pupil, but I don’t see a scene with him specifically. He might’ve been one of the students shown towards the end and in this photo but not sure which one he is.


Overall, The Grandmaster is an intriguing film that warrants a recommendation. Even the lack of focused storytelling still makes this a compelling film and a visual feast. It takes a certain level of sensitivity and patience but I do think it’s worth the effort.

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels

Thoughts on The Grandmaster? I’d love to hear it!

31 thoughts on “Rental Pick: Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013)

  1. He’s definitely a director that puts heavy emphasis on style. A lot of times that’s a good thing. That said I haven’t seen The Grandmaster yet. But it’s own that ever-growing list of mine. 🙂

    1. Yeah, his style here reminds me a bit of Zhang Yimou’s style though Yimou’s has a special fondness on color. I think it’s worth a look Keith, I’m glad I saw it, now I just have to get to In The Mood for Love! 😀

  2. Sounds to me like we completely agree (I have a review up as well, in which I say many of the same things). Visually this is astonishing. It is also features deliriously great audio design and is edited as well or better than most films. Technically speaking, it mightn’t be quite as good as good as Gravity, but it’s close.

    The narrative leaves a lot to be desired, though.

    Even our scores aren’t that dissimilar, really. 3.5 out of 5 makes for 70%, which would be a low C.

    In other words, great review!

    1. Interesting you mentioned Gravity as both are tremendous visually though I feel more connection to Bullock’s character and because it’s not moving from one story to the next, Gravity’s narrative style doesn’t feel disjointed.

      I still think the story of Ip Man is fascinating and definitely worth telling!

      1. Gravity is certainly better narratively. Much better even. It’s just that Grand Master is the only 2013 movie I think even compares visually. It’s not quite as good, but it’s in the same arena.

        And also agreed on Ip Man.

  3. Fine assessment, Ruth. He is a director who takes a lavish visual look of the subjects at hand. I did feel an unexpected affection with Gong Er’s (a more than solid performance by Zhang Ziyi) character. I heard the U.S. cut of the film kind of de-emphasize her role. That’s why I went looking for the original HK version. Thank you for the review and the shout-out, Ruth :-).

    1. Yeah, I like Zhang Ziyi in general and she is definitely good here. That’s the one thing I like about this Ip Man adaptation in that in includes her character, I just wish the characters are more fleshed out. It’d be a shame to de-emphasize her role, so THANKS for lending me the original version! 😀

      Hope you’ll receive it back soon, I sent it last Monday 🙂

  4. Hi Ruth –

    Awesome visuals
    Story truncated by cuts to save running time
    Misleading title – the film is as much about the Zhang Ziyi’s character as it is about Tony Leung’s Ip Man.

    But like you, I enjoyed the visuals. My review (done in early September) had the same rating 3.5 out of 5) as yours.

    Thanks for the fine review.


    1. Hi there Mike!

      Ah, the story was truncated for time? That explains a lot! I felt like it was incomplete somehow. Yep, I think you’re right the title should be more than IP Man as Gong Er got plenty of screen time here too.

  5. Ted S.

    I haven’t seen this one yet, I’m pretty over the kung-fu films since I’ve watched so many when I was younger. This one will certainly look good but I too not that familiar with Wong Kar Wai’s work, I’ve seen maybe 1 or 2 of his other films. He’s director who knows how to shoot a movie but I don’t think he’s that into telling an actual story.

    1. Interestingly enough I was more into Hollywood movies whilst my brother devoured those Kung Fu movies and books. He was so into Sin Tiauw Hiap Lu, not sure if you’re familiar w/ those.

      I’m still curious to check out Wai’s other work, but yeah if I only had this one to judge, it’s certainly style over substance.

  6. Nice review. I’m a fan of Wong Kar Wai and like his style so I need to see this. Definitely check out for In The Mood For Love, that’s my favorite movie of his.

  7. Zhang Ziyi is amazing to watch on the screen. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of my favorite films. I love her in everything I see. Great review, Ruth! I haven’t seen GrandMaster so better get to it.

    1. Hi Cindy! Zhang Ziyi is just sooo luminous. Have you seen The House of Flying Daggers? I’d recommend that as well, plus her co-star Takeshi Kaneshiro is equally gorgeous 😀

  8. I really liked the film though I can understand why people would have a hard time with its story and such. Yet, I would always tell people to watch the long version rather than the godawful truncated American cut. I don’t mind exposition if it’s used correctly but the way the American version added the text I felt was very unnecessary.

    1. This is the Hong Kong version which is 130-minute long. I still feel this one is somewhat *incomplete* because the characters aren’t fully-fleshed out. Can’t imagine the American version!

    1. I think in terms of story, Ip Man still has more substance and it’s actually about him whilst this one is split between him and Zhang Ziyi’s character. I need to see more of Kar Wai’s work though, thanks Mikey!

  9. I remember that this movie was released on my birthday this year, would’ve been nice to catch it but no unfortunately I can’t :/ Since the reviews were mixed, the movie kind of fall down from my priority. I loved In The Mood For Love, very stylish, mellow without being too much depressing. Hope you can watch it someday, Ruth!

    1. I have a feeling I might enjoy In The Mood For Love more than this one as I’m more of a romance than Kung Fu girl 😀 I definitely will watch that at some point.

  10. Same rating for me as well. I agree it’s a visual delight, but I also had problems with the narrative. While I’m a big Kar-Wai fan, I was let down with this film. I’d nominate it in a few technical categories though, like production design and costume design.

  11. Hi Ruth. I’ve read quite a bit on this film. Like I mentioned earlier on twitter, I believe Wai’s original cut was like 4 hrs. So even though you did see the longer cut, I’ve heard you can really tell there was a bit more story in there that didn’t get properly told. That being said, I’m excited to see Leung and the amazing visuals you mentioned. Cheers!

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