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Lovely 'Grandmaster' makes martial arts as stately as chess match

| Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

If you're not deep into martial-arts cinema, you might have walked by the various movies titled “Ip Man” on the DVD shelves and mistaken them for Chinese or Japanese sci-fi or fantasy.

But the legendary Ip Man (also spelled Yip Man) is no invention of screenwriters. He's a famous figure in Chinese martial arts, guardian of several martial-arts styles and the man who taught Bruce Lee his chops.

“The Grandmaster” is the latest version of his life to make it onto the screen, a regal, majestic and downright arty take on this teacher, champion and philosopher whose life spanned much of the 20th century. Co-writer-director Wong Kar Wai (“Chungking Express,” “In the Mood for Love”) goes for stately in this slow-moving action epic.

Fortunately, he has his muse, the great Tony Leung (“In the Mood for Love,” “Hero,” “Red Cliff”) in the title role, a magnetic screen presence who suggests mystery, romance and humility with just a faint, cryptic smile.

The story follows Ip Man through World War II, when much of China was under siege by the Japanese, but whose martial-arts aristocracy was still fretting over the divisions between assorted “Northern” styles and Ip Man's simple, lethal “Southern” style.

The grandmaster of the North (Wang Qingxiang) is about to pass his mantle on to a protege (Zhang Jin). But Ma San is a hothead, which makes Master Gong regret that he cannot pass the leadership to his daughter, played by the serene and stunningly beautiful Zhang Ziyi (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). Gong Er has mastered both the “64 hand” positions of her father's Kung Fu, and the philosophy behind it.

Wong Kar Wai pays tribute to the martial arts of the past as Ip Man is tested by the other martial-arts masters of the South before he must fight the best of the North in a friendly test of mastery.

Wong Kar Wai and his cinematographer — Philipe Le Sourd of “Seven Pounds” and “A Good Year” — shoot wondrous brawls in rain and snow, a funeral procession by a frozen lake, a bloodless beat-down in an elaborate brothel. It's a gorgeous looking film (shortened for American release), whatever its other virtues and failings. Lovely colorized newsreel footage and sepia-toned scenes that dissolve into still photographs capture the flow of history.

Roger Moore is a film critic for McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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