With martial arts getting more popular in the Thirties, more people seek to learn them via the professionals at Foshan in Southern China. Some of the experienced masters like to challenge their counterparts and undergoing battles. To have their whole concentration, it is their practice to lock up the venues and no one is allowed to leave during battles. No food and no rest before reaching any results. Ip Man (Tony Leung) is a young rich man extremely talented in martial arts, but he chooses to keep a low profile. Yet this doesn’t keep him out of these troubles ahead. One day he is trapped in this battleground so he has to use every means in order to get out of there...

Martial-arts nostalgia becomes Wong Kar-wai's best in years.

BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL: The prospect of any new Wong Kar-wai film, at this stage, is a cause for some trepidation, arousing suspicions that his career may have peaked in the late 1990s, with that breathless, seemingly effortless run of triumphs (Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together) which culminated with In the Mood for Love, his masterpiece, and the film which distilled all of his themes and fetishistic preoccupations into a single, seamlessly unified work.

this is a film to be experienced in a cinema

After that came a few lesser works, years apart: the fussy, high baroque fantasia of 2046 (which seemed—to me, at least—his response to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle), and My Blueberry Nights (2007), to date his only English-language flick, which reprised many of the stylistic tics of his Hong Kong films, yet somehow only served to diminish their achievements.

But The Grandmaster, his take on the life of martial-arts legend Ip Man, represents an intriguing choice, to say the least. It’s not entirely unprecedented: the director has flirted with genre filmmaking before, notably with 1994’s Ashes of Time, and the result then—woozy, attenuated, as much a stoned subversion of the wuxia film as Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand was for the traditional western—proved one of his finest works.

This one, which opened this year’s Berlin Film Festival (where Kar-wai was serving as jury president), found him edging slightly closer to the mainstream of China's mainland industry. And, perhaps inevitably, it was met with a chorus of disappointment. Part of this reaction, I suspect, has to do with a certain over-familiarity—after Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s thrilling Ip Man bio-pics (2008 and 2010), did the world really need another telling of this particular story?—but much has to do with this film’s own, inherently divided loyalties.

For the first hour, the fight sequences come thick and fast; one barely has a chance to draw breath. Directorially, Kar-wai has a habit, not only of cutting from a succession of rapid close-ups to reveal the characters in a long-medium shot (thereby giving us at least some sense of spatial dynamics), but also of cutting away from a display of force—a kick to the stomach, a flattened palm striking a throat—to show its collateral effect: some screws being loosened in the door with which a body collides, or ice fissuring underfoot as someone takes a step backward. And watching these, you sense not only his deep, almost obsessive fascination with sensual detail, but also his fundamental disinterest in the very conflict he’s supposed to be depicting. Inventive as they are, there’s a somewhat perfunctory air to the battles, here, and with it, a growing sense that the filmmaker’s heart is really not in the task at hand.

In the film’s second hour, however, a love story of sorts emerges, between Ip Man (played, coolly if perhaps a little too agreeably, by Tony Leung) and Gong Er (a luminous Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of retired grandmaster Gong Yutian—their subsequent decade-plus separation, in the wake of the Sino-Japanese War, serving to provide the rich vein of melancholy and yearning that is, for Kar-wai, the essential component of romantic love. And suddenly he seems fully engaged again: his storytelling no less imagistic than before—or less kinetic, as a climactic fight at a railway station attests—but suddenly imbued, this time, with the lonely, elegiac mood that is his trademark.

Since he parted ways with DOP Christopher Doyle, Kar-wai has collaborated with a number of cameramen: Darius Khondji, Harris Savides . . . But in French DOP Philippe Le Sourd—whose only major credit, before this one, was the unremarkable 2008 Will Smith drama Seven Pounds—he appears to have found a soul-mate. Virtually every frame here is a thing of wonder: breathtakingly lit, strikingly composed. Favouring an extremely shallow depth-of-field, in which objects are constantly moving in and out of focus, and framing characters either from below (for heroic poses) or slightly above (to achieve a portrait-like intimacy), the pair create a powerfully sensual experience; like Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai, this is a film to be experienced in a cinema—ideally, on the largest screen one can find.

But it’s what within those frames that impresses most: the meticulous, nearly obsessive evocation of vanished places, lost time; whether in 1930s Foshen, or 1950s Hong Kong, the film displays a kind of nostalgic, almost anguished longing that would put Proust to shame. And as such, it once again reveals Kar-wai’s real muse to be, not his actors, but longtime collaborator William Chang Suk Ping, who serves this time as art director, costume designer and primary editor. In such a visually busy film—shifting perspectives, sliding backwards and forwards in time—the clarity Chang brings to the filmmaker’s storytelling is essential. But after more than a dozen films, his opulent visual style is by now inextricable from the director’s own.

Some changes have reportedly been made for the film's international cut: about 10 minutes has been lost, truncating some characters’ backstories, and the order of certain scenes has been shuffled. More egregious, though, is the addition of a final onscreen quote from Bruce Lee—one of Ip’s pupils—which not only appears in English only, but serves to contradict the film’s essential message. It’s a bewildering final flourish from the director; for a film in which the correct stance is everything, it crucially fails to stick its landing.