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Martial arts sequences aside, ‘The Grandmaster’ feels incomplete

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Tony Leung as Ip Man prepares to take on all comers in The Grandmaster.

Two and a half stars

The Grandmaster Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Wang Qingxiang. Directed by Wong Kar Wai. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

Chinese martial-arts legend Ip Man is having a bit of a pop-culture moment: In the last five years, he’s been the subject of five different movies and one TV series, although The Grandmaster is the only one to get such a high-profile treatment in the U.S. (courtesy of the Weinstein Company). That’s mainly thanks to internationally acclaimed filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, known for lush dramas like Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love. Wong has made one martial-arts movie in the past, 1994’s Ashes of Time, but he has far more experience with melancholy and romantic longing than with kicks and punches.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the most affecting parts of The Grandmaster deal with feelings of regret and unrequited love, especially between Ip Man (frequent Wong collaborator Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of one of Ip’s mentors. As he’s proved in his past work with Wong, Leung is great at conveying deep, soulful sorrow with just a look, and the second half of the movie, which finds Ip separated from his family while living in Hong Kong in the aftermath of World War II, captures a sort of world-weariness even in its fight sequences.

Those fight sequences are what the U.S. distributor is banking on to draw in the crowds, and while they are often pretty to look at, they aren’t particularly inventive or original. The movie’s combination of action and historical drama is frequently awkward, and the story, which covers nearly 20 years of Ip’s life, is disjointed and choppy. The Weinstein Company had more than 20 minutes cut from the original Chinese version (although Wong supervised and approved the changes), and the film is full of title cards that bridge apparent gaps in the narrative, along with sometimes pedantic explanations of historical context. Whether those missing pieces have been removed for American audiences or were never there in the first place is impossible to tell without seeing the original version, but either way, The Grandmaster feels incomplete. It’s a series of lovely moments that never quite come together into a movie.

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