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‘The Grandmaster’ gives martial arts emotional oomph

Tony Leung stars “The Grandmaster” as Ip Man martial arts guru who trained Bruce Lee.

Tony Leung stars in “The Grandmaster” as Ip Man, a martial arts guru who trained Bruce Lee.

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Ip Man Tony Leung

Gong Er Ziyi Zhang

Gong Baosen Wang Qingxiang

Ma San Zhang Jin

Zhang Yongcheng Song Hye Kyo

The Weinstein Co. presents a film directed by Wong Kar-wai and written by Wong, Zou Jingzhi and Xu Haofeng. In Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: October 1, 2013 6:10AM

Art film meets martial arts in the gorgeous “The Grandmaster.” Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai salutes Ip Man (1893-1972), an historic figure who trained action star Bruce Lee. The elegant style of the fighting sequences does more than display camera and kung fu technique — this style also shows fighters living with honor.

More linear than his more allusive romances, Wong’s biopic relates the career of Ip Man (Tony Leung) from 1936 in southern China, where his father’s wealth let him master kung fu with no day job, to 1954, when Bruce Lee enters his martial arts school in Hong Kong. Citing Lee may help market “The Grandmaster,” but this coda and a question for the audience in the end credits detract from the sublime melancholy Wong builds.

Early in the film, Ip spars with Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). Hardly an inch separates their faces in an erotic slo-mo freefall. Invading Japanese troops prevent a rematch. She is the daughter of a retiring grandmaster from northern China, but custom forbids a female from assuming the family mantle. She relocates to Hong Kong and practices medicine, vowing to never fight again, nor teach the “64 Hands” technique. A poignant reunion with Ip in Hong Kong resonates with the signature longing in Wong’s “In the Mood for Love,” “2046” and “My Blueberry Nights.”

Wong set his “Ashes of Time” (1994) among 12th century martial arts fighters and troubled lovers. Sammo Hung designed those action sequences and later did the same in “Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grand Master,” directed by Wilson Yip. (Unsurprisingly, a very young Bruce Lee turned up in the last scene.)

In “The Grandmaster” Wong works with fight designer Yuen Wo Ping and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd. Ravishing angles and novel details ensue.

Wong’s style typically includes lyrical slow motion, night rain scenes, narrators, timelines, archival or fake archival news footage, and close-ups of feet. Here the many sliding slipper shots are key to kung fu choreography. Less entrancing is what comes out of the mouths of martial artists between bouts. Words of wisdom from Gong’s father: “If you don’t see something, does it not exist?” Hardly deep. Nor is a line attributed to Bruce Lee: “A true martial artist does not live for, he simply lives.”

Granted, “The Grandmaster” is not a primer on Chinese philosophy. Yet it may score as crossover cinema for Wong fans and Lee fans.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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