Directed by: Wong Kar Wai.
Written by: Wong Kar Wai & Haofeng Xu & Jingzhi Zou.
Starring: Tony Leung (Yip Man), Zhang Ziyi (Gong Er), Song Hye-kyo (Cheung Wing-sing), Chang Chen ("The Razor" Yixiantian), Zhao Benshan (Ding Lianshan), Wang Qingxiang (Gong Yutian), Zhang Jin (Ma San), Yuen Woo-ping (Chan Wah-shun), Xiaoshenyang (Sanjiangshui), Cung Le (Tiexieqi), Shang Tielong (Jiang), Lo Hoi-pang (Uncle Deng).
There is no director working today who makes more visually stunning films than Wong Kar Wai. This was even true, although to a lesser extent, of his ill-advised English language debut – My Blueberry Nights (2008). That film was dramatically hollow, and rather slow, but damn, did it look good. Wong has spent the last few years making his epic kung fu film, The Grandmaster, and once again, it is one of the most visually stunning films you will see this year. If the film isn’t up to the level of Wong’s best films, that’s because the narrative is a little scattershot – it takes multiple detours during it’s running time. In lesser hands, this would be a bigger flaw – but Wong’s detours are as entertaining and the main thrust of the story.
The movie is a biopic of legendary martial arts master Yip Man – who has already been the subject of two apparently more traditional biopics Ip Man and Ip Man 2 by Donnie Yen (that have remain unseen by me). Wong isn’t so much interested in a traditional rise and fall and rise narrative that many biopics take – tracing the man who became famous back to his roots. Instead, The Grandmaster is really an all-encompassing epic film about Chinese history from the 1930s through the 1950s, as seen through the eyes of several martial arts masters.
The Grandmaster isn’t really a kung fu film directed by Wong Kar Wai, as it is a Wong Kar Wai Kung fu film – if that makes any sense, and to me it does. Although the film is visually stunning, and contains some of the best kung fu sequences you will ever see, this film is every inch a Wong Kar Wai original – he is more interested in the philosophy and politics behind kung fu than in the kung fu itself – and of course, there is a decades long attraction between two characters who are essentially kept apart by their own sense of honor. It’s not exactly In the Mood for Love with kung fu, but that’s probably a better description than anything else I can come up with.
When we first meet Yip Man (Tony Leung), he is happy – married with kids, living off his family’s money, and a master in the Southern wing chun style of kung fu. All the kung fu masters gather at a famous brothel – although if anyone actually has sex with prostitutes its remains unseen, this is more of a social club. The old grandmaster Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) is retiring, and as is traditional, must have one final duel before he can do so. Since his protégé Ma San (Zhang Jin) has already humiliated most of the southern masters, they choose Yip Man to represent them. The two duel, and Gong declares Yip the winner. His daughter however, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) doesn’t like the outcome and challenges Yip Man herself – and wins. But more important than the duel itself, this sets up a decades long attraction between these two characters – one in which they never truly act on, although they are perfect for each other. The betrayal of the Gong legacy by Ma Sun, and the Japanese occupation of China, become two of the most important storylines for much of the movie – because Gong Er wants vengeance on Ma Sun, and the occupation costs Yip Man more than most – or as he says it “We went straight from the spring of my life, to the winter”. In the North American released, another subplot involving another master, known as The Razor (Chang Chen) – has been all but excised from the movie – which is a shame, because I wanted to see more of him.
The duels in the film are among the best I have ever seen in a film. Wong doesn’t go quite as far over the top with wire work than say Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou in Hero, but the effects are certainly exaggerated. There are too many duels to highlight each one – but far and the best one takes place at a train station, as snow falls down around the gorgeous Zhang Ziyi, who proves herself to be the most gifted martial artist in the film. Tony Leung, a huge star and a constant Wong collaborator, isn’t a kung fu specialist, and his scenes are not quite as good as a result. Still, his years of training for the role pay off – besides, as I mentioned earlier, Wong is more concerned with the philosophy behind kung fu than its practice – and for that, Tony Leung is perfect. He may not be able to hold a candle to say Jet Li in kung fu, but his acting ability more than makes up for it.
I feel I need to see The Grandmaster a second time. This is an utterly beautiful film, and the first time I watched it, I was simply swept up in the beauty of the images. Wong films have a way of doing that to you. The storyline, especially to somewhat like myself who is not exactly an expert on Chinese history, was slightly confusing at times, and I have to admit that I don’t really feel that I got “know” Yip Man during the course of this movie. Perhaps, however, the film would have been better had it told a simpler story – especially since Wong has never been a director whose films focus too much on the narrative anyway – he much more concerned with mood, tone and emotions than a standard plot.
As the movie flashes from moment scene to the next, it does begin to feel like he’s trying to pack too much into one movie. Wong has often been accused of being a “style over substance” director – a complaint that I sometimes agree with in films such as Happy Together. When the style and substance meet perfectly – as they do in films like Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love or 2046 – there are few directors better in the world than Wong. The Grandmaster is not on their level – Wong does seem a little more concerned with how everything looks here, than with the story or the characters. However, The Grandmaster still deserves to be seen – and on the big screen if possible. It is visually stunning from start to finish, contains some excellent kung fu scenes, and another great performance by Zhang Ziyi. The Grandmaster is not up to the level of most Wong Kar Wai films – but considering how great they are, it’s perhaps unfair to expect him to be at that level each time. The Grandmaster may not be the Wong Kar Wai masterpiece I wanted it to be – but it’s a fine film just the same.