[27 February 2014]
“Don’t tell me about your teacher,” says Ip Man (Tony Leung) at the start of Wong Kar Wai’s dreamlike heartbreak of a kung fu film, The Grandmaster, “or brag about your style.” Using that same steady humility flecked with a hint of the sardonic that’s made Leung such a crucial counterweight to the Hong Kong school of overkill filmmaking, his Ip Man preemptively bleeds the hot air out of what’s to follow. This is a good thing, because that scene is intercut with the already-legendary scene in which Ip Man faces down a dozen or so adversaries in pouring rain. He dispatches them all — even the guy who crashes through a second-story window just to get into the fight faster — with practiced ease but not a whiff of arrogance, just as the real Ip Man’s student Bruce Lee would do on film decades later.
In theory, The Grandmaster is a historical drama, following Ip Man’s role in uniting rival schools of kung fu in mainland China before the Japanese invasion before being forced into exile in Hong Kong. In reality, it’s a Wong Kar Wai film. That means the film is wired more to reverberations of the senses and the soul than to the pragmatic dullness of plot and history. The real Ip Man (1893–1972) was the scion of a wealthy southern Chinese family who studied the Wing Chun style of kung fu as a child and later became a teacher. Wong hits many of the bigger signposts of this life by means of several narrative cheats: expository voiceover, title cards, and on-screen identification of various characters. This frees him up to explore what the film is truly interested in: The bird-like ballet of the numerous duels themselves, and the isolating effects of truly following kung fu’s chivalric precepts.
Operating as it does on two different tracks makes for a confounding experience. Multiple times, Wong gears the film up for a grand showdown, only to pull away from it afterward or narratively strand it without explanation. (This is possibly at least in part due to the American release having been substantially edited down.) The latter approach was the one he used in his last true action film, 1994’s truly baffling swordfight fantasia Ashes of Time. There are set-piece fights in The Grandmaster that rank among the best that the genre has seen in years; Yuen Wo Ping’s choreography has become less frantic and more gracefully sinuous since the days of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and even Kung Fu Hustle. But many of them stand alone, like hard gems in the film’s rushing river of imagery, which Philippe Le Sourd shot using rich and buttery tones for the interiors and resonant darks for the few exteriors.
Ip Man’s epic watery battle at the film’s start is a pristine little piece all of its own, a geometric exercise in the calculations of conflict, centered around Ip Man’s long black vestment and crisp white snap-brim hat (which, of course, incredibly stays through all his gymnastic gyrations) that make him look like some renegade priest. The editing is a small symphony of raindrops and flashing hands and sliding feet, finding the lyricism in its potentially repetitive structure of action-reaction. Why precisely he’s fighting is never quite clear, except for some general dialogue about all the kung fu schools with competing styles.
For all of The Grandmaster’s talk about the importance of uniting rival factions of kung fu students and teachers (unity in the face of external threats being the unifying constant of modern Chinese period films), its beating heart lies in an unrequited love story. Wong brings Leung back together with his 2046 costar Zhang Ziyi for another roundelay of smoky glances and the sublimation of desire. Ziyi plays Gong Er, daughter of the grandmaster of northern Chinese kung fu (Ip Man having been promoted to grandmaster of the south early in the film). Gong Er is the controversial heir apparent for title of northern Grandmaster.
Despite it being against tradition for women to openly practice the art (it’s pointed out that there are four taboos in kung fu: “monks, Taoist priests, women, and children. Grappling with them is a bad idea”), Ip Man takes on Gong Er when she demands it, and the result is the closest thing this exhaustively pent-up and glowingly-lit film gets to openly expressed passion. They kick and punch at each other up and down the stairs of a lavishly baroque brothel with the easy grace of longtime sparring partners.
To his credit, Wong holds back on the gravity-free flourishes that have become such a lazy crutch for many martial arts films, only pulling it out when it really matters. That moment comes in a scene where Gong Er practically vaults over Ip Man and their faces glide past the other in agonizingly sensuous slow-motion. It makes the implicit explicit: This isn’t a fight scene, it’s a love scene.
Unfortunately, Wong isn’t able to sustain that level of steam-heated emotion for more than a few stretches at a time. The final third of The Grandmaster, mostly from the time Ip Man lands penniless in Hong Kong and goes looking for a teaching job to support his family back on the mainland, is a nearly complete muddle. The balancing act that Wong managed for the film’s first hour, in which historical details were handled almost as sidenotes to the main action — philosophical musings and meaningful glares and occasional showdowns — breaks down.
The momentum is further halted by a lengthy flashback that exists mostly to showcase a fight scene between Gong Er and her sinister adopted brother. The moment itself is a corker, the two of them grappling in a drifting snowfall on a train platform. Gong Er’s wire-taut fragility and the train rushing past dangerously past suggest a martial-arts Anna Karenina, but it remains cut off from the story itself.
The Grandmaster isn’t exactly a return to form for Wong, who hasn’t completed a feature since 2007’s My Blueberry Nights. But his desire to make a biographical martial arts film — which, according to one of the DVD edition’s mostly superfluous extras, he first came up with while shooting Happy Together in 1996 — illustrates at the very least a desire to move past the fashion-plate arthouse reveries of In the Mood for Love and into new ways of telling stories about the aching loneliness of love.