“The Grandmaster,” a hypnotically beautiful dream from the Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, opens with curls of smoke, eddies of water and men soaring and flying across the frame as effortlessly as silk ribbons.
The men are warriors, street fighters with furious fists and winged feet, who have massed on a dark, rainy night to take on Ip Man (Tony Leung), a still figure in a long coat and an elegant, wide-brimmed straw hat. Even amid the violent whirlpools of rain and bodies, that hat never leaves his head. It’s as unyielding as its owner.
Keep your eye on that hat, which retains its iconographic power even when Ip Man takes it off to, say, take down a roomful of opponents. The white hat may be an invention — in many archival photos of the real Ip Man (1893-1972), a revered martial-arts master, he’s bareheaded — but there’s a mythic air to the dashing figure wearing it. However much history informs this movie, “The Grandmaster” is, at its most persuasive, about the triumph of style. When Ip Man slyly asks “What’s your style?” it’s clear that Wong is asking the same question because here, as in his other films, style isn’t reducible to ravishing surfaces; it’s an expression of meaning.
It’s been five long years since Wong, one of the greatest filmmakers working, had a new movie, and it’s a pleasure to have him back. His last, “Ashes of Time Redux,” released in 2008, was new only in that it was a reworking of his 1994 “Ashes of Time,” an elliptical meditation on memory in the cloak of a swordsman movie.
“The Grandmaster” is yet another martial arts movie, although to describe it as such is somewhat like calling “L’avventura” a thriller about a missing woman. Arguments can be made but would miss the mark. So would expectations of historical fidelity.
Predictably, “The Grandmaster” is, given this filmmaker, less a straight biographical portrait of Ip Man and more an exploration of opposing forces such as loyalty and love, horizontal and vertical, and the geometry of bodies moving through space and time. Ip Man’s experience as a martial arts master and even as a teacher to Bruce Lee are factors, but when Ip Man isn’t fighting, he transforms into one of Wong’s philosophers of the heart, one whose life is filled with inchoate longing, poetic observations and complicated women.
Ip Man, sometimes called Yip Man, was born as Ip Kai Man or Yip Kai Man. Wong makes him 40 when the movie opens in China 1936, and while the historical figure would have been somewhat older, it sounds better when, in voiceover, Leung explains that if life has four seasons, his first 40 years were spring. Ip Man practices a style of kung fu called wing chun, which is often translated as “beautiful spring.” In the film, his metaphoric season begins with him being called on to demonstrate his style for Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang), a grandmaster visiting from the Japanese-controlled north. Having decided to retire, Gong has arrived in Foshan for a celebration and an exhibition of the local kung fu talent. His truer intention may be to find the worthiest martial arts successor.
During his visit, Gong speaks about the historical rift between the south and north through their martial arts practices, a division that, however entertainingly illustrated in a series of fights, carries unmistakable urgency because of the Japanese occupation, the coming war and, more obliquely, the fissures of the 1949 Communist Revolution. “The Grandmaster” remains rooted in one man’s experiences, but it’s also, unmistakably, a portrait of his country.
The version of the film that opens Friday is shorter and a bit different from the one that has played abroad. Explanatory text has been added.