There are few filmmakers, great ones included, capable of overcoming the banality of the biopic, a genre in which drama is dubiously generated by playing connect the dots with the events of a real person’s life. Wong Kar Wai, the Hong Kong director of Chungking Express and In The Mood For Love, isn't immune to the limitations of this cinematic approach; one of the medium’s most expressive visionaries is done in by the burden of fidelity, a duty to stick to the trajectory of his subject’s story. Said subject is Ip Man, the martial-arts legend best known—in the West, anyway—for training Bruce Lee. His life has been explored by several recent films, including a pair of Hong Kong smashes starring Donnie Yen. The Grandmaster, which casts Wong regular Tony Leung as Ip Man, is a moodier take on the material, with a greater emphasis on the philosophies of kung fu—specifically, the stripped-down style of Wing Chun—and the loneliness of its eponymous hero. Yet at the end of the day, the pesky imperative to convey information is still a driving force; more than anything Wong has ever made, the movie chokes on exposition, its more poetic concerns stifled by its surfeit of plot.
That’s not to say, of course, that the director’s involvement is invisible. Quite to the contrary, it’s detectable in every sensuous close-up of hands or feet and every stuttering slow-motion shot of Leung brooding magnificently in an opulent Chinese brothel. Thematically, too, The Grandmaster is of a piece with Wong’s usual heartsick laments: As it moves from Ip Man’s 1930s tenure in Foshan, where he wins the title of southern master, to his 1950s exile in Hong Kong, the movie casts its iconic protagonist as a duty-bound romantic loner—especially when, during a particularly Wongish passage, he exchanges letters with a gorgeous combatant (Zhang Ziyi) with whom he once sparred. Where the filmmaker really cuts loose is in the glorious fight scenes, as expertly choreographed as the ones in a Zhang Yimou movie, but also infused with the intimacy of those long, seductive strolls in In The Mood For Love. For Wong, such balletic battles—staged in pouring rain or falling snow, in golden-lit interiors or darkened exteriors—must have been the main draw to the project.
Anyway, it almost certainly wasn’t the opportunity to deliver a history lesson: Where Wong falters, presumably out of a failure of interest, is in making the details of Ip Man’s narrative compelling. Faced with the responsibility of moving his real-life fighter not just from one fist-flying skirmish to the next but also forward through time, the director resorts to several clunky devices, such as Leung endlessly narrating in voiceover or lengthy blocks of onscreen text. Seemingly crucial details—like the death by starvation of Ip Man’s children and his refusal to collude with the enemy during the Japanese occupation—are covered in speedy montage, with Wong tellingly abandoning the main story arc for a couple of reels to get lost in a more emotionally charged subplot. The movie doesn’t work as a character study either, even with the remarkably talented Leung in the lead: Audiences may walk away with more knowledge of Ip Man, but they’ll scarcely have seen the person behind the legend. Perhaps the blame belongs with Harvey Weinstein, who—in a typically mercenary move—has trimmed Wong’s original cut by a whopping 20 minutes. (Most of those who’ve seen both versions claim that the longer one hews closer to the director’s wheelhouse.) Then again, maybe Wong is just ill-suited to a world of hard facts. Fiction, which can be bent and twisted for a greater good, is much more his speed.