With "The Grandmaster," Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai joins the ranks of Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and Zhang Yimou ("Hero") as art-house directors plunging into their home country's martial-arts traditions and the results are quite beautiful.
Wong delves into the legend of Ip Man, who in the middle of the 20th century helped introduce Wing Chun kung fu outside China, particularly through his best-known pupil, Bruce Lee. Ip (played by Tony Leung) is introduced as a young master from the South who impresses Gong Baosen (Wang Qinxiang), a Northern master who wants to unite China's kung-fu styles.
But before Ip can bring together North and South, history intervenes, as the Japanese invade China on the cusp of World War II. Later, Ip is reunited with Gong's daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang, Leung's "Hero" co-star), who tells of the lengths to which she has gone to reclaim her father's legacy from his traitorous protégé, Ma San (Zhang Jin).
Wong and his collaborators, notably cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping ("The Matrix"), capture the breadth of China's history and different fighting traditions with elegance and beauty. The plot sometimes gets a little dense, but the gorgeous images make it worth sifting through.
Opens Friday, Aug. 30, at area theaters; rated PG-13 for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language; 122 minutes.