Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster starts and ends with a hat. A Panama hat, to be precise, worn by actor Tony Leung as master Ip Man. Actually, the whole film focuses on the style at large of the legendary martial artist. He was internationally famous for training a young Bruce Lee while he was living in Hong Kong, and spreading the Chinese system of martial art of Wing Chun, which, according to the legend, was developed by a Buddhist nun.
Just look at Ip Man’s gestures on the screen, the way he sits while smoking a cigarette or the way he wears his clothes… Not to mention the fact that the final quote he delivers (SPOILER) literally says “Show me your style.” This is martially speaking, of course, but the “coolness” of Wing Chun has been hyperbolically shown during the previous 130 minutes (this is the cut I saw at Rio Cinema in London, one of three different versions screened so far).
Closer to operatic melodrama and structured like a magnificent tableau that goes back and forth in time, The Grandmaster opens with a nocturnal fight in the rain, where Ip confronts a group of aggressors wearing his aforementioned signature hat, in what can be seen as a sort of equivalent to Donnie Yen/Ip Man defeating ten karatekas in Wilson Yip’s 2008 film on the same theme. So iconic is the accessory that it has also been included in the minimalist version of the poster that you can find online (and below), which reprises the night rumble.
In recent years a lot of films have been produced on Ip Man, but they were more and more filled with nationalistic claims and the figure of the grandmaster was becoming a sort of national hero pitted against a political turmoil. Although the Sino-Japanese war is present in The Grandmaster too, Wong seems to be more interested in the place of women within the myriad of stories, factions and schools within the different martial styles. To the point that a large part of the film does not even feature Ip Man, following instead the story of Gong Er, the daughter of northern Chinese grandmaster Gong Yutian.
As far as his previous works are concerned, we’re probably closer to In The Mood For Love than Ashes of Time, with aerial fights that look like courting dances between lovers kept separated by historical events, a sense of honour and a thirst for revenge (see the sequences which see Ip Man’s skills as opposed to Gong Er’s “64 hands”).
No: if you’re simply looking for Wing Chun’s spectacular signature Chain Punching.
Yes: if you like the idea of a period melodrama sumptuously shot, with a musical score that include Ennio Morricone’s hits Deborah’s Theme from Once Upon a Time in America and La Donna Romantica.