Each country has their history and storytellers often find those histories ripe for the picking when trying to devise ways to entertain. In the U.S., for instance, audiences marveled at cinematic release The Patriot (2000) for its depiction of sacrifice and duty by an American freedom fighter during the Revolutionary War and the appreciation for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play Hamilton has only grown since its debut in 2015. Writers and directors recount American tragedies and victories, sometimes to shine a light on our failures, but more often to celebrate the triumphs. Creatives just pick a moment in time or a figure audiences can believe in and, boom, instant connection tied to national pride. For Chinese storytellers, a figure like Ip Man has been adapted and expanded upon numerous times for theatrical release by several directors. Another well-known martial artist is Huo Yuanjia, the individual responsible for co-founding the Chin Woo Athletic Association. Huo has been portrayed on film by several individuals including Eddy Ko (The Martian) in Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (1995) and by Jet Li in Fearless (2006) and now the baton is passed to Du Yuhang (a.k.a. Dennis To) in director Cheng Siyu’s The Grandmaster of Kung Fu. This quick 75-minute martial arts drama takes inspiration from several moments in Huo’s life to tell a narrow story, but, in doing so, comes off like it’s borrowing from better stories that are far more exciting in their deliveries.
During the Qing Dynasty, Japanese forces invaded China in an attempt to seize control of the country. One such area was the city of Tianjin, home to several martial arts masters. In an attempt to remove any potential threats and as a means to display their perceived superiority, Colonel Wu Takeda (Naomen Eerdeni) authorizes the establishment of a Japanese school within the city, drawing the immediate ire of the local schools. When verbal threats turn to acts of violence, Master Huo Yuanjia (To) steps in to protect his fellow masters and prevent the Japanese aggressors from taking more than they have already.
Let’s be clear — Grandmaster is not trying to tell a true story. The screenplay from Tao Siwei and Siyu borrow elements from Huo’s life and mingles them with the history of the era to tell its own story, not too dissimilar from Fist of Fury. This should allow for some freedom to be unique, especially as it relates to Huo’s space in the martial arts community, his family life, and the politics he finds himself embroiled in. To does a great job in conveying the authority and peacefulness of Huo’s legacy, as well as offering a believability with his physical work. Considering that To has portrayed Ip Man in the films The Legend Is Born: Ip Man (2010), Kung Fu League (2018), and Ip Man: Kung Fu Master (2019), one shouldn’t be shocked that To’s on-screen performance communicates the necessary skills for audiences to imagine him as the legendary Chinese martial artist. In this regard, the script, cinematography from Xia Xiaoming, and stunt choreography from Song Yingkai coalesce through To to complete this approximation of who Huo is. In the opening sequence, when we first meet Huo, he’s given a commoner’s entrance, adorned with the accoutrements of his day job as a porter, the camera introducing him by way of the crowd he’s coming into parting before him with a certain disapproval or lack of awareness as to who he is. It makes the confrontation we observe, the contest between himself and another master, appear all the more impressive, especially as To’s performance is entirely physical and lacks any kind of emotive signals. This allows the audience to focus on the fight Huo engages in, using Huo’s attacks and defensive responses to tell us who he is. In this and future combat scenes, there’s not a single moment where the audience doubts in Huo’s abilities, which is a major kudos to the fight team and To himself.
The problems, however, arise when one realizes that in keeping the film brief, in opting to borrow from various catalogued moments in Huo’s life and sort of remixing them, major components come off as lesser versions of other interpretations. When the masters of Tianjin come to the Japanese’s newly established Red Flower school, by invitation no less, they are greeted by Anbei (Zhuang Han) who displays a sign denigrating the local masters that identifies the Chinese as “Sick Men of Asia.” For those who have seen Fist of Fury, this is going to ring a few bells, especially when Huo arrives at the school and is compelled to engage in combat against Anbei. According to Huo’s history, he did encounter a fighter who had such a sign, but it wasn’t the Japanese, it was a Russian wrestler. This is a change, one presumes, that was made not just to more easily fit in one more fight and to do so with these characters, but also as a means to fit in the larger narrative of the film which serves as a nationalist cry of superiority over the Japanese. As a result of choices like these throughout the film, while Grandmaster is clearly its own story and is by no means a biopic, the way that it goes about staging sequences for the purposes of conflict results in them coming off as lesser versions of scenes from other films. All due respect to To’s talent as an on-screen martial artist, he is not Bruce Lee.
Before one presumes that the issues of the film lay just within the way it opts to borrow from portions of Huo’s life, the structure and execution of the Japanese characters are also inconsistent. The film goes out of its way to establish that the Japanese don’t speak Mandarin and that the masters don’t speak Japanese, with communication sent through a Chinese interpreter (Gong Guan) working for the Japanese. This matters because there are moments when the characters interact without the interpreter present meaning that we, the audience, are the only ones that really know what’s being said, yet the characters respond almost as if they do understand. There’s also the fact that Takeda is in charge of the Japanese forces inside Tianjin, but he’s introduced *after* Anbei and Major Yoshida Masaichi (oddly, no character is listed under this name in the credits and searches don’t pull results to identify the actor) are established as the antagonists for Tianjin with their own plans for the city. Especially given what we come to learn about Takeda, one starts to expect him to act more honorably with the other two being the threats and, instead, nothing comes of his presence other than as a means to prevent Masaichi from ending the film early with a bullet. Though, there is some gunplay and that, too, felt borrowed, but from Ip Man: The Awakening (2022).
According to IMDB, Grandmaster released in China in January of 2019, so this home release is releasing roughly two years after and approximately two months after its debut on Hi-YAH!. I mention this because despite the amount of time between theatrical and home release, there’s nothing on-disc in terms of bonus features. Some Well Go USA releases come with at least a brief official marketing promo where the cast talks about the project intercut with behind-the-scenes or making-of content. It makes the disc feel more fleshed out, as well as adds more value to the purchase. Unfortunately, all that’s included with Grandmaster are trailers for the film and future Well Go USA releases. So, if you were hoping to have something to see how To prepared for the role or how Siyu approached the material, prepare for disappointment.
The 75-minute runtime goes by quickly, so if you’re in the mood for some martial arts action, it’s not a complete waste of your time. There are certainly better films you could watch based on the same historical figure (and don’t use dubs for the Japanese characters) and, in fact, watching Grandmaster may inspire you to do just that. I don’t need a reason to watch Fearless, but I’ll take it anyway. Here’s hoping that if To returns as Huo, he’s given more time for his performance to shine through and a script with a tad more imagination.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital January 31st, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Well Go USA The Grandmaster of Kung Fu webpage.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.
Categories: Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews, streaming
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