Leave it to Hong Kong maestro Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love) to reinvent both the historical biopic and Chinese kung fu action movie in one fell swoop. This is a staggeringly beautiful movie, designed and shot with precision and sensitivity to show both the action and the drama in telling detail. The story of one of the most iconic martial artists in Chinese history, the film is lush and involving even as it's also somewhat overly complicated and hard to engage with.

It starts in 1936, when northern master Gong (Wang Qingxiang) travels to the south to investigate reports about Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who just might be the future of kung fu. Intrigued, he offers Ip the chance to become the grandmaster. But Gong's daughter Er (Zhang Ziyi) feels like this is an insult to her family. Then in 1938 Japan invades, and Ip refuses to collaborate with the enemy, which separates him from his wife (Song Hye-kyo) and children. Although Gong's heir Ma San (Zhang Jin) does make a deal with the Japanese, which strongly offends Er's intensely held code of honour. More than a decade later Ip tracks down Er again in Hong Kong; she's working as a doctor while Ip is teaching martial arts. His newest student is the young Bruce Lee.

This story is told through a series of epic hand-to-hand battles, each of which is choreographed in a specific style suitable to the combatants. These details may not be clear to unschooled audience members, but the way Wong shoots and edits the scenes is seriously striking. With lush photography by Oscar-nominated Philippe Le Sourd, the fight scenes have astounding detail, often slow-motion close-ups that make each encounter refreshingly lucid. They're also never overwrought, designed to show the skill of the fighters rather than the usual blood and death. And while Leung gives the film a strikingly cool centre, it's Zhang Ziyi who breathes real passion into the story, lighting up the screen even when she's standing silent and still

Continue reading: The Grandmaster Review