Stunning but emotionally undernourished martial arts biopic from Wong Kar-wai
Flying fists and the agony of unconsummated romance power Wong Kar-wai's Oscar-nominated kung fu spectacle, which receives a belated UK release after its clandestine premiere when it was unmasked as the 2013 London Film Festival's surprise film. The story of martial arts master Ip Man – who would eventually train Bruce Lee – reunites its director with the stars of 2046.
Set during the tumultuous period following the fall of China's last dynasty it finds Wing Chun practitioner Ip Man (Tony Leung) pitting his skills against a retiring grandmaster (Wang Qingxiang) in a nerve-fraying demonstration. Our hero is then challenged, and bested, by the grandmaster's headstrong daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), with whom he begins a flirtation, though they are thwarted by circumstance in the form of his marriage and volatile political events.
Wong's tenth feature benefits hugely from the silky, scintillating cinematography of Philippe Le Sourd, who offers scorching action painted with the delicacy of a fine brush. If there's plenty of visual razzle-dazzle then this doesn't always distract from the film's flaws. The undernourished romance suffers by comparison to the luxurious screen-time afforded to the director's previous love affairs, not least the majestic In the Mood for Love; though the sensitive performances of its leads ensure that these scenes are infused with poignancy.
The plot is presented in a less than logical order which diminishes the impact of events. Meanwhile the prolonged martial arts demonstration might be performed with the requisite flair and intensity, but it can hinder the film's momentum; and there's often little more than honour at stake during scenes of sparring, resulting in few moments of real jeopardy. This tough and tender biopic nevertheless makes for an elegant, occasionally exciting tribute to a man and his art-form.
Selected release from Fri 5 Dec.