Tony Leung's 'The Grandmaster' Is Beautifully Alone

Wong Kar Wai’s overkill kung fu epic about Bruce Lee’s teacher doesn’t cohere even as well as his more esoteric work, but its assembled shards make for a brooding, sumptuous experience.

The Grandmaster

Director: Wong Kar Wai
Cast: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan, Xiao Shenyang, Song Hye Kyo
Distributor: Anchor Bay
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Release date: 2014-03-04

“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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.