While the film spans decades that include modern China’s turbulent history, the primary focus is always on the characters and how they struggle to cope with what the world has imposed on them. Among the glamorous cast, Zhang Ziyi stands at the center of attention by portraying her character, who experiences a series of tragic events, with emotional intensity. In comparison, Leung conjures up less charisma here partially because his Ip Man is rendered gentle, unassuming and with few distinct characteristics. The most obvious victim of the drastic reduction of a four-hour rough cut to the current 130-minute version, however, is Taiwan’s Chang Chen (張震). His character Razor, a master of the Bagua (八卦掌) school of martial arts, is confined to three scenes and has almost no connection to the rest of the story.
Oozing with the kind of longing and melancholy that defines Wong’s oeuvre, The Grandmaster beautifully grounds the recurrent themes of memory and the passage of time in the world of martial arts. As the characters utter introspective soliloquies and wander from the Chinese towns and cities to Hong Kong’s narrow alleys, the ancient world of martial arts has gradually fallen into oblivion along with its set of rules, decorum and philosophy. Its traces are only captured and frozen in the old photographs of Ip Man in the movie.
Although Wong reportedly spent three years visiting about 100 martial artists across the globe before making the film, he chose to portray his subject with a touch of tenderness. In their final meeting, Gong Er asks Ip to live life on her behalf as she doesn’t have a chance to do so. Ip survives, albeit alone, to tell the tale and continue to pass on the spirit of martial arts.