The film narrates the life of the Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man, beginning in the 1930s in Foshan and moving on to cover his flight to Hong Kong after the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the events leading up to his death.
The movie begins with Ip Man reflecting on martial arts, and then cuts to a scene of a fight under the rain between Ip and a dozen combatants. Ip Man wins, and experiences flashbacks of his life, from his early training at the age of seven to his induction into martial arts by his master Chan Wah-shun, and his marriage to his wife Cheung Wing-sing.
Ip Man's peaceful existence is threatened by the arrival of Gong Yutian, the Wudang Boxing martial arts grandmaster from northern China, who announces that he has already retired and has appointed Ma San as his heir in the North. He then concedes that the South should have its own heir. A flurry of discussions and fights erupt as various masters attempt to challenge Gong, but they are all barred by Ma San. As the Southern masters are deliberating on a representative, Gong Yutian's daughter Gong Er arrives and she tries to convince her father not to continue the fight, as she feels they are all unworthy. Meanwhile, the Southern masters decide on Ip Man to represent them, and Ip proceeds to be tested by three Southern masters before he challenges Gong Yutian. However, the "fight" between Ip and Gong turns out to be actually an exchange of philosophical ideas. Gong declares Ip the winner and returns to northern China. However, Gong Er sets out to regain her family's honour by challenging Ip Man, and they agree that if anything breaks, Ip loses. "Kung Fu is about precision", so whoever breaks a piece of furniture during the fight will be the loser. An intense fight breaks out between Ip Man and Gong Er, which concludes with victory for Gong because Ip broke a step at the very end (albeit while 'saving Gong from falling'). Ip and Gong then part on friendly terms, with Ip saying he wants a rematch.
Ip Man and Gong Er keep in contact after parting ways by exchanging letters, and Ip intends to bring his family with him to northern China, but his plans are disrupted by the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. During the war, Ip Man and his family descend into poverty and he loses his two daughters due to starvation. In the meantime, in northern China, Ma San becomes a hanjian and ends up killing Gong Yutian. When Gong Er returns, she confronts her elders for forsaking her father but they tell her that her father's final wish was for her to be happy and not to seek vengeance. Gong Er refuses to accept that, instead, she vows to never teach, marry or have children, and devotes her entire life for vengeance.
Ip Man moves to Hong Kong in the hope of starting a career as a martial arts teacher, but ends up facing all sorts of challenges because there were also numerous other martial arts masters. He defeats them soundly and earns a reputation. He meets Gong Er again on Chinese New Year's Eve 1950 and asks her for a contest one more time while implying that she should start rebuilding her martial art school. But Gong Er refuses, stating that many martial arts disappeared in the course of history; and that hers would not be the only one. A flashback 10 years earlier shows a confrontation between Gong Er and Ma San at a train station on Chinese New Year's Eve 1940, and Gong defeats Ma after a brutal and intense fight. However, Gong herself is heavily injured and loses her desire to use martial art.
The film then fast-forwards to 1952, when Ip Man and Gong Er meet each other for the last time. Gong confesses to Ip that she has had romantic feelings for him right from the beginning. She dies shortly after. Ip explains in a voice over that in the fight with Ma San, Gong was injured so badly she turned to opium for the pain and this was her downfall. The final scenes offer a visual montage as Ip Man's school flourishes, including a statement that Ip made Wing Chun popular worldwide and his most famous student was Bruce Lee. Off screen, it is stated that Ip Man died in 1972.Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as Ip Man (Ye Wen)
Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er
Song Hye-kyo as Cheung Wing-sing (Zhang Yongcheng)
Chang Chen as "The Razor" Yixiantian
Zhao Benshan as Ding Lianshan
Wang Qingxiang as Gong Yutian
Zhang Jin as Ma San
Yuen Woo-ping as Chan Wah-shun (Chen Huashun)
Xiaoshenyang as Sanjiangshui
Cung Le as Tiexieqi
Shang Tielong as Jiang
Lo Hoi-pang as Uncle Deng
Chin Shih-chieh as Gong clan elder
Wang Jue as Gong clan elder
Lau Ga-yung as Yong
Lau Shun as Rui
Zhou Xiaofei as Gu
The film is well known for its long development time, having been announced in 2008. It was caught in development hell, partly because Tony Leung broke his arm while training in Wing Chun. The film is Wong's most expensive production to date. Wong intended the film to be a major collaboration with mainland China's film industry, noting that the enormous expansion and growth in China's film industry and market over the past decade has provided filmmakers with resources to make features that weren't possible before. Wong stated, "Films don't just belong to the mainland or Hong Kong. They belong to all Chinese and not just to a certain place at a certain time. It's a legacy that belongs to all of us."
The music is composed by Shigeru Umebayashi and Nathaniel Méchaly, with 2 works by Ennio Morricone and the original Stabat Mater composed by Stefano Lentini. The Stabat Mater is not included in the soundtrack CD and it was published separately by Milan Records as "Stabat Mater" As Seen in Wong Kar Wai's "The Grandmaster". It reached Number 1 in Hong Kong's iTunes Original Score.
The Grandmaster received generally favorable reviews from critics. The film received a 75% approval rating from the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 99 reviews with an average score of 6.7/10.
Variety gave the film a positive review, stating Wong "exceeds expectations with 'The Grandmaster,' fashioning a 1930s action saga into a refined piece of commercial filmmaking". The review also says, "Boasting one of the most propulsive yet ethereal realizations of authentic martial arts onscreen, as well as a merging of physicality and philosophy not attained in Chinese cinema since King Hu's masterpieces, the hotly anticipated pic is sure to win new converts from the genre camp."
While praising Tony Leung's Ip Man and Zhang Ziyi's Gong Er, calling the latter "more or less complete and coherent", The Hollywood Reporter lamented some of the more underdeveloped characters stating that "the same can't be said of some of the other characters, such as Chang Chen’s Razor, an expert of the Bajiquan school who is supposed to be another of the grandmasters. Song Hye-kyo’s Madam Ip has only a cursory presence and is basically rendered invisible in the film’s second half."
Zhang Ziyi's performance as Gong Er has been praised by critics such as Scott Bowles of USA Today as the film's "discovery", and her character has been mentioned by critics such as Kenji Fujishima of Slant Magazine as the film's "real central figure" in spite of the film's title.
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote: "the film, despite a few splendid fights, is a biohistorical muddle that never finds its center."
The Grandmaster has earned HK$21,156,949 (US$2.7 million) at the Hong Kong box office, and grossed over 312 million yuan (US$50 million) at the mainland Chinese box office, USD$6,594,959 in North America and USD$64,076,736 in worldwide, and thus becoming Wong's highest-grossing film to date.
There are three versions of the film that have been released. First is the domestic "Chinese Cut" of the film that runs 130 minutes. Second is the version of the film that debuted at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival at 123 minutes. The third, released by The Weinstein Company, is a more linear version that includes explanatory text for Americans less familiar with the story and runs at 108 minutes.
Wong wrote in The Huffington Post that he was "never interested in telling a watered down version," but one that was tighter and provided greater historical context:
As a filmmaker, let me say that the luxury of creating a new cut for U.S. audiences was the opportunity to reshape it into something different than what I began with -- a chance one doesn't always get as a director and an undertaking much more meaningful than simply making something shorter or longer. The original version of THE GRANDMASTER is about 2 hours, 10 minutes. Why not 2 hours, 9 minutes or 2 hours, 11 minutes? To me, the structure of a movie is like a clock or a prized watch -- it's about precision and perfect balance.
But some critics believe the 130-minute version is superior. The Wrap called the film "sweeping, gorgeous, exciting – and butchered." Manohla Dargis at The New York Times wrote, "too bad that the American distributor didn’t have enough faith in the audience to release the original."