The most under-appreciated films usually emerge later as gems, often 10, 20 or even 50 years later. For example, Citizen Kane didn't win an Academy Award but 20 years later, it was considered one of the greatest films made. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) was a critically acclaimed film when released but is really considered more of a gem today than 30-40 years ago. Like fine wine, films get better as they age. Once Upon in the West (1968) when released was celebrated in Europe but panned in the US. Twenty years alter, it is considered one of the greatest films ever made. The Grandmaster comes very close to these films.
The three reasons this film is panned: 1) People want action, the figure Ip Man represents action and this film breaks from traditional kung fu movies but in the same vein as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In essence, it is just as good as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There is plenty of action but martial arts fans want Jet Li, Donnie Yen or Michelle Yeoh. Hence, they will never give this film an 8, 9 or 10. Action is great, but it's second-rate to the true martial artist fan. 2), People find it complex. The plot is quite simple, really. I suspect it's more about reading prose and not realizing it's poetry. Plot is about Ip Man rising to the best in the South and to be challenged by the northern martial artists but war stops everything. half of the movie is about tradition and honor, not about martial arts. Definitely not about good guy beats up bad guy which draws most people's attention and praise. 3) Ip Man and Gong Er fall in a type of forbidden, unrequited love. It's bounded more by cultural beliefs than personal beliefs. But to many, this subplot slows or kills the action plot. But love isn't complicated, or at least we shouldn't see it that way.
On another final note, this film isn't about confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist. Rather, Ip Man doesn't really have an opposing challenge. His challenges are friends, as real martial artists become friends, as mentioned. They test each others' skills and build respect for each other, much like the test fight with Razor. It is the pretenders who fight, like Ma San. It is about honor and respect, not about violence.
Movie fans who want a real martial artist star will prefer Donnie Yen in Ip Man (2008) which is artistically almost as good a film. In contrast, The Grandmaster is better written, better acted and better cinematography, but Ip Man with Donnie Yen has better fighting scenes. Keep in mind, Bruce Lee never made great films, they were rather B type films but people love his iconic charisma. Many will like the film for the star, not the quality.
So like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this film is mystical and really, martial arts is more a scenic subplot into a man and his world. Or what director Kar Wai Wong intended. Regardless, a question is that should one pan a film because of what it isn't? Or should one celebrate a film for what it is? A parent celebrates and loves each child, regardless of how different. How can we celebrate this film?
1. It's slow but that gives a chance to watch the direction and cinematography which is exquisite. One doesn't rush through The Louvre, but savors the moment. It's quite masterful and poetic. 2. The screenplay and script. Brilliantly done. The dialogue is simple in appearance but every other line has a double meaning. Not since Once Upon a Time in the West has a simple dialogue taken on so many directions. The viewer has to focus on the words and what they mean. 3. There is beautiful scenes, significant cultural symbolism but it is broken down simplistically, most of the symbolism is cultural. It's not hard to understand, just place yourself in another world. It's not a simplistic film like Rocky. Quite the opposite but yet the plot is quite simple, if you realize it's not just about kung fu. Watching Master Gong Yutian practice in the snowy garden was magnificent. The brothel scenes with the martial artists was surprisingly a wealth of characters, costumes and sets. 4. Acting is strong with Ziyi Zhang leading and maybe overshadowing Tony Chiu Wai Leung. To some, that's not sensible: why not a film to showcase Donnie Yen with real moves? Bu Donnie isn't as somber an actor. We see the pain and modesty of Ip Man through Tony Chiu Wai Leung. The plain expressiveness of the actors casts a shadow over the difficult history, the winter months as Ip Man narrates. Ziyi represents the forbidden martial arts, the family secrets, the traditional view of outsiders. Hence she has an important symbolism. Ip Man represents the new, the invention of Bruce Lee and exposure of Wing Chun to the world.
The ending was slightly out of place given the poetry of the film. We didn't need Ip Man to give his final quote, although it was snappy, it was out of place. Perhaps, just a fade from the photo shoot with the young Bruce Lee.
Just watch and appreciate artistic quality. Real martial arts fans will appreciate the descriptions and dialog over different styles of martial arts. This film won't be really in a Top 100 list of greatest films, but it comes close and should be in a top 250-500 list of great films. Or one of the 50 best films of the decade. A gem. It just isn't a traditional martial arts fan film, rather an Arts House film.
I'm not sure whether to give this film a 8.5, 9, 9.5?but seeing the relatively IMDb scores (6.5 at this time), I'm boosting it to its rightful place.