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The “Grand” Master: A Disenting View by Jon Nielson

****The first leg of my road trip is now complete.  I will not be back in my office for a couple of weeks but at this point I do have intermittent internet access.  One of the things that I found when I opened my Inbox was this review of the “Grandmaster” by my Sifu Jon Nielson.  It is addressed to his students and written specifically from a martial artists viewpoint.  The essay discusses many of the historical oddities of the film which one suspects are now likely to cause confusion as people imagine Ip Man’s life in the future.  With his permission I would like to post it here as it makes some important points about Ip Man’s actual biographical history that are often forgotten.

Obviously film critics without technical and historical commitments are likely to see this movie differently, but for many actual Wing Chun students this will be a valuable discussion.  Alas I have yet to see the film myself, but now that I am back in a more urban area I hope to take a look at it in the next few days.****

Ip Man as imagined by Wong Kar-wei.

Ip Man as imagined by Wong Kar-wei.

The Grandmaster: A Review

I saw Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster” on Friday, August 30th, and I’d like to share my thoughts on the movie.  I had high hopes for the movie, but I was terribly disappointed.  First of all, I don’t know for whom the film was produced.  It is a martial arts movie with several fight scenes, but those scenes are relatively short, and not exactly revealing.  The shots are something like those of the first two Batman movies in which you don’t see much but close-ups of arms moving or feet moving and a sudden strike that sends the other combatant flying an unbelievable distance, only to recover and keep fighting.  The film did showcase a number of Chinese martial arts, but only briefly.  Most of these contests were reduced to just that, some contrived contest that was not a fight, but was designed to test a specific skill.  The point I’m trying to make is that I don’t think the film was written to appeal to the serious martial artist.

Besides, the film had far too much romance for a martial artist to enjoy it.  I’m not exactly sure why they did this.  Maybe it was to justify the affair that Ip Man actually was involved in during his Hong Kong years.  However, the films romance doesn’t seem to appeal to the romance crowd either.  In the film, this affair was between Ip Man and a fictional character named Gong Er.  I suppose it all starts out well enough: Ip Man is married to a woman from his social class who understands him and cares for him, but he has a challenge match with Gong Yutian, the “grandmaster of the north,” in which he overcomes.  Gong’s daughter, Gong Er, wishes to restore the family honor and challenges Ip to another match.  He accepts and loses because he is a gentleman.  This loss wins him the girl’s affection.  However, circumstances interfere with their relationship.  They are finally reunited, but are unable to fulfill their relationship because, even though he is now free from his relationship, she has taken a vow never to marry or have children.  Furthermore, she has become addicted to opium, and eventually dies from this addiction.  It’s hardly a romance for the ages.

The film also can’t have been written for the historian.  There are a number of historical events depicted in the film, but they serve more to warp understanding than to clarify.  In the film, Ip Man marries and has children.  Some of these children die in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese war.  This is somewhat accurate, but the number of children and the circumstances of their lives and death are confused in the film.  Ip Man then leaves Foshan for Hong Kong to make a living for his family, but they are prevented from coming because the Chinese close the border.  Ip Man then has this platonic affair with Gong Er.  What actually happened is that Ip Man was married and had eight children, four girls and four boys.  He had two girls first, then Ip Chun, then two more girls and then Ip Ching and two more boys.  Two of the girls died and the two other boys.  Some of them died at birth.  The family did lose their fortune due to economic downturns, some of which were the results of the Sino-Japanese war, but mostly due to the 1911 revolution and finally to the communist takeover.  Ip Man was a detective under the Republic of China.  He almost certainly was involved in anti-communist activities as part of his duties.  When the communists took Foshan in 1949, he was forced to flee for his life with his oldest daughter.  He then sought to make a living teaching Wing Chun in Hong Kong.  He was able to bring the remains of his family to Hong Kong in the mid ‘50s, but his wife refused to stay and took the family back to Foshan.  It was then that Ip Man took a mistress.  He had one son with her.  Meanwhile, back in Foshan, Ip Man’s wife died of cancer in the late 50s.  Both of his sons were sent to reeducation camps by the communists, and in 1963, they fled communist China to be with their father.  Ip Chun had established himself as a school teacher, but Ip Ching was still young and lived with his father, helping in his Wing Chun schools.  Eventually, Ip Ching went into textile manufacturing, but he continued to learn and teach Wing Chun up until and after his father’s death from throat cancer in 1972.  Some say that Ip Man’s mistress introduced him to opium, but Ip Ching told me that he never saw any evidence of this.  All of these events are confused in the film.

Jon Nielson of Wing Chun Hall in Salt Lake City.

Jon Nielson of Wing Chun Hall in Salt Lake City.

Furthermore, Gong Er’s character is based on a woman who did avenge her father’s death.  The woman was named Shi Jianqiao.  Her father worked for a warlord during the warlord period.  He was beheaded, and she vowed she would avenge him.  She waited until the warlord period ended, and then when the former warlord was leading a prayer service, she shot him three times.  She stayed and handed out pamphlets explaining her action and was eventually acquitted on the grounds that her avenging her father’s death was a justifiable act of filial piety.  See http://history.cultural-china.com/en/48History13897.html.

My main complaint about the movie is that it perpetuates a mythical martial arts community that never existed, and simply serves to confuse people who wish to associate themselves with the Chinese martial arts today.  It begins with Gong Yutian explaining that he became a grandmaster by combining Ba-gua and Xing-Yi, and then challenging several other martial arts masters without losing a match, thereby uniting the northern martial arts community.  He then takes this association south and forms a branch of his community in Foshan.

When he considers himself too old to continue, he travels south again and accepts a challenge to establish the southern grandmaster, who turns out to be Ip Man.  He chooses a northern heir for his style, but that heir proves unworthy, to the point where he kills his master, Gong Yutian.  His daughter, Gong Er, vows vengeance and eventually kills him in a challenge match, thereby taking the rights of her father’s art back for the family.  In the meantime, Ip Man is continually challenged by a series of masters who want to test and strengthen his position as a grandmaster.  These masters become his friends in a kind of lose martial arts society.

Well, what really happened is that during the republic, a group of businessmen formed the Jin Wu association.  It became very popular in the north, and they wanted to form a branch in the south.  They sent a representative to Foshan, and he challenged the local martial artists.  Ip Man’s friends all recommended him, and he knocked the northerner out in under a minute.  That didn’t make him a grandmaster. He still had several seniors in the area.  It just made it hard for the Jin Wu association to put down roots in Foshan.  While Ip Man was alive, no one called him a grandmaster.  It was a posthumous honor given him by his students because of all of the work he did in teaching and spreading Wing Chun.  Ip Man was not great because some teacher said he was.  He was great because he spent a lot of time learning from a lot of people, perfecting his art, and spreading it to other people.  Probably what set him apart most was his ability to modernize the art because of his western education as opposed to a classical education, and he also emphasized turning practice into playing games.  Ip Man also never designated a successor.  Well, he wasn’t in a position to do so.  No one had made him the Wing Chun vessel, so he couldn’t do that to anyone else.  Anyway, that notion comes from a myth of the successors of Chan Buddhism.  Such a thing never really happened.  People follow teachers because they are good.  Ip Man was good, so people learned from him.

Another thing that bugged me about the movie was the contradiction between reasonable, practiced, disciplined control of your body and abandonment of will to fate.  Wong Kar Wai’s Ip Man says something to the effect of, “What we do with our hands and feet is under our control, but what happens outside of that is just fate.” Why would a martial artist say that?  I realize that this quote is from a villain, but in Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon,” Master Han says, “We are men who create ourselves.” That’s the spirit of the martial arts, not blind submission to fate.

It seems that Zhiyi Zhang is always playing a woman who makes a foolish choice and ends up desperately sad.  In this movie, in order to win back her father’s art for her family, she makes a vow that she will never marry, have children or teach her father’s art.  There are plenty of stupid choices you can make, but why would you take something back for your family and then make sure there would never be any more of your family?  Why would you become the successor for the art and promise never to teach it?  That’s senseless.  I realize that there are probably plenty of people out there who are ready and willing to explain to me the Asian value behind this reasoning.  I don’t care.  It’s still stupid.  This kind of thing ruins Chinese cinema for me.  It was the same thing with the end of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and “House of Flying Daggers.” Furthermore, the films assertion that Gong Er could never have a place in the martial arts because she was a woman is ridiculous and self-contradictory.  First of all, several arts have boasted famous female practitioners, but most condemning is the fact that the first master that challenges Tony Leung’s Ip Man, the Ba-gua master, is a woman.  This is an unforgivable self-contradiction in their own move.

Ip Man as he actually existed during the Hong Kong years.

Ip Man as he actually existed during the Hong Kong years.

Then there were all of encounters between Ip Man and the other masters.  This made it seem that there was some kind of noble agreement between all of these masters.  Actually, the martial arts community is nothing like that.  Most people are viciously jealous of their art.  I have had a few encounters like this, but for the most part, people who come in to challenge are not open to new concepts.  We should be, but challenge matches are no way to bring about this type of camaraderie.  Actually, Ip Man was part of an inter-school martial arts association.  Here’s how it happened: when he moved to Hong Kong, several martial arts schools were causing trouble, and the police were cracking down on them.  Ip Man went to the police and worked with them, registering his students so that they wouldn’t cause trouble.  Then he went to different schools and convinced them to join him in this effort.  Eventually, they had a coalition of schools that were united in an effort to promote the reputation of the martial arts.  It was practical, not some clandestine meeting for an unsanctioned fight contest.

There were fights, though.  Leung Sheung and Wong Shun Leung, two of Ip Man’s early students fought with several champions from the various schools in Hong Kong and won, thus spreading the reputation of Wing Chun.  These were bloody and brutal events, not some noble contest where no one gets hurt and nothing gets broken.

“The Grandmaster” did have some visually stunning scenes, but that is not enough to recommend it.  If you want to see a good martial arts move, rent “Ip Man,” or watch it for free on Hulu.  I think it is the best martial arts movie ever made.  “Ip Man” also takes some historical liberties, but the motivation for fighting and the fight scenes are infinitely superior to those in “The Grandmaster.”

About the Author

Jon Nielson has practiced and taught Wing Chun for over thirty years.  He was first introduced to the art by Jerry Gardner in Salt Lake City, and has subsequently studied with Kenneth Chung, William Cheung, Eddie Chong, Malcolm Lee, Leung Ting and Ron Heimberger.  He currently works with Ip Ching and has had the opportunity to train with him on several occasions in Hong Kong.

Discussion

9 thoughts on “The “Grand” Master: A Disenting View by Jon Nielson

  1. Many times I have argued that martial artists watch martial arts films as if they are documentaries. This review of Wong Kar-wai’s ‘The Grandmaster’ proves my point so well – thanks!

    I appreciate the effort to unjumble (or, as we now all say, thanks to Wikipedia, to disambiguate) fact from fiction, but it amused me a great deal to hear the author declare that martial artists wouldn’t like the film because it was too romantic and fans of romance wouldn’t like the film because it wasn’t romantic enough, etc., etc. Well, I’m both of these groups, and I loved it.

    Other than that, some interesting ‘facts’. But, hang on… Are they facts? I don’t know! – The author claims Ip Man became famous because he was good. I don’t know how true this is. All I know for sure is that the only reason they have made film after film about him, is because his student was Bruce Lee. No mention of that. – Plus, ‘The Grandmaster’ is not a film that is really ‘about’ Ip Man at all, is it? It is about Gong Er, who is fictional. And it’s all the better for it. The grandmaster mentioned in the film’s title is either Gong Er, or her father who causes all the trouble in the first place, or Wong Kar-wai.

    Posted by Paul Bowman | September 4, 2013, 5:35 am
  2. I have to agree with the above comment. This is one of the worst reviews of a martial arts film I’ve ever read. Talk about taking your ideas about what should constitute the ideal martial arts movie way too seriously! Look, it’s a FILM! Wong Kar Wai is an amazing director and fans of his cinematography will recognize many of the things they’ve come to love about his films in The Grandmaster. So first of all I’d say that Wong Kar Wai made the film for himself – to play with his vision of a Wu Xia film painted in light. Secondly the film is made for cinephiles. It is most definitely a romantic film, though not in the traditional boy-gets-the-girl Hollywood style. Finally, as a martial artist and film buff, I found the scenes mesmerizingly beautiful. If I wanted to know the “true history” of Ip Man, I’d do some research. I’d read. But to be entertained by the vision of an artistic mind, I’ll go for The Grandmaster any day!

    Posted by Andrew Shinn | September 4, 2013, 2:06 pm
  3. Is there any truth to the statement at the end, that Ip Man passed on teachings from such a person as the fictional Gong Er? At the very end it seems to imply or even indicate that he did pass on teachings from her and her father. Was this implying that he passed on some Bagua and/or Xingyi? i’ve never heard such a thing, but found the suggestion interesting.

    Posted by MBD | April 6, 2014, 12:18 am
    • No. The Gong Er story is a fictional creation. The concepts that Ip Man taught were a product of the martial arts environment of the Pearl River Delta region. They didn’t have anything to do with Bagua.

      Posted by benjudkins | April 6, 2014, 12:31 am
  4. I found it odd that a sifu of Chinese martial arts would make the comment, “I realize that there are probably plenty of people out there who are ready and willing to explain to me the Asian value behind this reasoning. I don’t care. It’s still stupid. This kind of thing ruins Chinese cinema for me.” Everyone can have an opinion for any reason, but this sounds dismissive of the very culture from which his chosen martial art was born.

    Posted by Phillip | August 22, 2014, 3:44 pm
    • Bruce Lee did not agree with Chinese cinema either hence why he refused them. Just b/c he doesn’t like the common traits the Chinese movies practice doesn’t mean he disrespects the culture itself. Think about it we are American yet I get annoyed how movies that say “based on true events” are so loaded with falsehood that it often times is so warped it is no longer about the original event. The author gives examples of how the martial arts community in China behaves, then goes on to tell us how the movie was off base. If the author was actually dismissing the culture that created his martial art do you really think he would care how the culture of the people in a movie were behaving incorrectly from the real one? You go on to say anyone can have an opinion, then immediately after you judge the authors prospective of the Chinese culture based on his view of a Chinese movie? I think you were looking for the negative here.

      Posted by Dustin Rhodes | October 30, 2014, 3:48 am
      • I personally hate the distortion of historical events in movies: I don’t see the need for it. Fiction is an established trope: we all know how to immerse ourselves in a nearly real world of fiction without it being bolstered by false historicity. I like martial arts movies, but when a legend is being created it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, cults, hero worship, deifying propaganda: I have to look for the clay feet.
        But then it was a beautiful film, so poised, more like a ballet then a “based on a true story” film. And I wonder how oriental the sentiments are? It feels almost more like a mediaeval romance of thwarted love: Tristan and Isolda for the dojo.
        I think both points stand – a) why distort such a fragile thing as history with verifiably non-factual noise?
        and b) It’s a beautiful film;

        Posted by Adrienne | June 10, 2016, 7:54 pm
  5. Oh dear, a white boy who thinks he’s chinese enough to dismiss chinese cinimatography. This film isn’t a martial arts film. Wong kar wai makes art films.

    Posted by Anonymous | June 22, 2016, 8:08 am

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  1. Pingback: The Grandmaster | Chewy Reviews - September 4, 2013

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