Film of the week: The Grandmaster

Wong Kar Wai casts his romantic and cultural reveries through a kung fu scrim in this long-awaited distillation of the life of wing chun master Ip Man – a film now bearing the scars of Wong’s own off-stage tango with his US distributor Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ Weinstein.

Vadim Rizov

from our January 2015 issue

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, 2013)

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, 2013)

Wong Kar-Wai’s previous foray into martial arts, 1994’s Ashes of Time, elided nearly all combat, so it’s surprising that The Grandmaster opens with an extended showcase for famed action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping at his finest. With no real introduction, Tony Leung’s Ip Man is pitted against a dozen men at night during a torrential deluge, the heavy rain captured in both step print and languorous high-frame-rate slow-motion as ripples hit the ground – two characteristically Wongian signatures in the middle of a fight that’s otherwise impersonal in the best possible way. Each punch, kick and impact is captured cleanly and coherently, Wong serving the spectacle of a big brawl rather than resisting its adrenalised charms.

The first developed and last released of a cluster of Ip Man films, The Grandmaster unsurprisingly distinguishes itself from its visibly cheaper, much more functional competitors through its pervasive melancholy. Wong’s decision to make a movie about Ip (wing chun master, Bruce Lee’s teacher and a figure revered in his own right) is consistent with his recurring emphasis on exile and the notion of a return to a geographical and personal past. Ip Man’s life took him from Foshan in south China to Hong Kong, and his family suffered during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II, with his wife dying afterwards from an extended illness exacerbated by the war; his trajectory covers a lot of literal ground while also forcing his character into a permanent reverie for people, places and traditions that are no longer accessible.

The action is, to some extent, frontloaded, diminishing considerably after the first half-hour climaxes with a battle between Ip and Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of a northern Chinese master and great unconsummated love of Ip’s life. They twirl in slow motion, their faces and bodies coming dangerously close, satellites hovering near one another, forever out of true grasp and denying their mutual attraction. The music is Stefano Lentini’s Italian-language ‘Stabat Mater’; as ever, Wong insists on his right to go for the emotional jugular with any music he cares to choose, regardless of incongruity.

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, 2013)

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, 2013)

In Wong-world, to look into the past is a form of melancholy self-communion rooted in a cultural and political legacy; the distinction between the personal and the broadly political is ultimately irrelevant. Gong Er speaks for Wong when, at her final meeting with Ip, she makes explicit the mutual attraction that has been latent until then, but doesn’t seem to regret not following through: “How boring it would be to have no regrets.”

It’s not surprising that Wong would turn towards the language of martial arts to find a new perspective for his recurring obsessions. Jia Zhangke relied on wuxia tropes and set-ups for A Touch of Sin (2013), and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s next film will be a period martial-arts work; like them, Wong takes martial arts as an agent of cultural memory very seriously.

There are many dull patches here – yearning looks can slide into mere mopery and mooning – but The Grandmaster mostly proves that Wong will have no trouble finding more new ways to push himself. The film’s diasporic scale and separated lovers in wartime occasionally recall Doctor Zhivago’s worst excesses, long gazes across snowy landscapes and all, but at its best The Grandmaster expands the personally compact and geographically sprawling longing of In the Mood for Love (2000), rendering the politics shaping its characters’ lives more explicit than usual without leadenly straining to make the connection. If Wong’s application of super slow-mo and other trademarks flirts (as always) with self-parody, at his best there’s still the feeling that a moment of true longing has been earned rather than insisted on through programmatic application of emotional music and slowed-down visuals.

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, 2013)

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, 2013)

The UK will be receiving the Harvey Weinstein cut of Wong’s film, executed in collaboration with the director. Wong’s explanation is that he wanted to make sure the vital cultural context that Hong Kong audiences would get immediately wasn’t lost on Western viewers – a patently disingenuous explanation given the massive changes on display; the mogul has run amok. The film has been cut from 130 minutes to 108 and heavily rearranged (Weinstein has managed to render it less linear than it was previously). There are captions identifying all and sundry (not a bad move, actually) and explanatory title cards that actively assume viewers to be idiots. Also added is an expository Leung voiceover that’s utterly devoid of emotion, which arguably works in a contrapuntal way.

Bottom line: big-screen viewing will help, but unless you want to experience the thought experiment of watching a Wong film in which every elision and ambiguity has been systematically removed or debased, a Region 0 DVD of the uncut work may be a better choice.


In the January 2015 issue of Sight & Sound

The horizontal Wong Kar Wai

Wong Kar Wai’s respect for traditional martial arts is firmly in evidence in his vividly authentic The Grandmaster, which explores the life of the legendary wing chun teacher Ip Man. But does his narrative lose its way in the battle between style and substance, asks Tony Rayns?

+ In the mood of kung fu

Wong Kar Wai explains his lifelong fascination with martial arts, why he was determined to bring a new realism to the genre, and why quality films, like the finest stews, should never be made in a hurry. Interview by James Bell.

+ The birth of a legend

The Grandmaster sits in a tradition of kung fu movies showcasing genuine fighting techniques alongside the fictional exploits of real-life historical martial-arts masters like Ip Man. By Leon Hunt.

  • Sight & Sound: the January 2015 issue

    Sight & Sound: the January 2015 issue

    Wong Kar Wai on The Grandmaster, plus Birdman and the resurrection of Michael Keaton, John Berger on Charlie Chaplin and 112 critics on the best...

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