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The Grandmaster Review: Wong Kar-Wai Paints Another Myth Of Ip Man
Wong Kar-wai is an acquired taste, but for those already caught under his spell, he is a magician conjuring up mirror worlds, and reflecting alternate realities. Destiny and tragedy feature heavily in his universe, where characters ponder ‘what ifs’. He is a perfectionist director, which is why it’s taken practically a decade for The Grandmaster to be realised on screen since it was first announced. The director has handled diverse genres over his career, and has only really failed to meet expectations in the form of his first US film My Blueberry Nights.
The Grandmaster is his tenth film, and his seventh partnership with Tony Leung. The martial arts epic has unfortunately been cut substantially for USA audiences. Film.com has a pretty comprehensive overview of what these cuts entail, but this is a review of the original cut, which is available to other territories, and for import by US purists. Though there are differences between the two edits, I believe my praise and criticism of The Grandmaster will ultimately be applicable to both cuts of the film.
The Grandmaster is Ip Man. A figure who is approaching Fong Sai-yuk levels of attention in modern cinema, with multiple films about his life as a practitioner of Wing Chun and influence on Bruce Lee. Wong Kar-wai’s take on the character is not a conventional rise to success tale, instead spending lengthy periods with Ip Man’s peers. It shows the transition of power in 1930s China, the passing of a martial art from one generation to another, and the differing views of the art from volatile characters. This is a tale about legends and the myths they leave behind, with Ip Man featuring as a quiet but powerful figure passing through the era with grace, like an inevitable torrent of water flowing through rapids.
The Grandmaster is a stark contrast from Donnie Yen’s two films concerning the man. Wong Kar-wai overshadows other cinematic attempts through his own film’s sheer aesthetic beauty, world building and poetic editing, but it comes at the cost of clarity and coherence. Though maybe that’s not really a fault, and the film’s own remit. It’s set in a world of myth and legend, not reality. Filmed in a hyper-real style, with Leung beating up dozens of men without breaking a sweat, and surrounded by larger than life figures. Donnie Yen’s films were almost cartoonish at times with their hyper-reality, and Wong Kar-wai’s film is dream-like in his. Both refuse to tackle Ip Man as a human being, instead painting him as god-like in ability and temperament.
Wong Kar-wai is doing what Chinese films do well, paying respect to ancestors by mythologising them beyond fault. This is to the film’s detriment, because Leung’s character barely has anything to worry about the entire film, resulting in a passive protagonist floating through life, and who would be boring to watch if it wasn’t for Tony Leung, who is in my opinion the best Hong Kong actor working today.
Ip Man wins every fight, he never struggles, never has doubts; never shows overt emotion. What conflicts and tension he experiences, are mostly of the inner sort, rather than outer. Sure, he gets into fights, especially when he has to convince his peers to accept him as their heir, but he’s always in control, he has no dilemmas, no weaknesses, and after a short while, the viewer knows he’s going to pass whatever test is laid before him. You could say that viewers know Donnie Yen will pass whatever obstacles are laid before him too, but the key point is that his character doesn’t know that. Wong Kar-wai’s Ip Man shows no indication of self-doubt.
Ip Man does border on being destitute when the Japanese invade during World War 2, but Leung plays the character as inscrutable. The lack of hand-holding and audience manipulation is wonderful, but he’s so cool that it’s hard to relate to him. Which admittedly may not be the point, considering the film is about a legend, but in terms of characterisation, if we can’t get into his shoes and understand what he’s thinking, he’s not a character we can tolerate watching for almost two hours.
The one aspect of the film that opens up a more juicy obstacle is his relationship with Gong Er (played by Zhang Ziyi), and the impact this has on Ip Man’s wife. We never see him consummate any relationship with the feisty daughter of a martial arts master, though it’s obvious there is deep feeling between Ip Man and her, and we can infer that the wife knows about this. But there is never any scene between Ip Man and the wife to confront this predicament; nor of her feelings on his dedication to his art.
There is only one single scene where anything seems to be tangible between them, and it’s when Ip Man’s family are taking a photo and he stands beside his wife awkwardly. That’s it. For me, that’s the only point in the film where Wong Kar-wai is explicit as he can be in showing Leung’s character experiencing genuine discomfort, but again it’s so oblique it barely registers. There is an even bigger moment towards the end when Ip Man has a revelatory conversation with Gong Er, but the emotion in the scene is on a one-way street and it’s not coming from his direction. Leung is a brilliant actor, but Wong Kar-wai’s intent for the character is inevitably to remain placid and keeping the turmoil inside himself.
The film is designed in a certain hyper-real way to explore the passing of traditions between generations, and Ip Man’s place in the process, and as a visual feast it’s remarkable. The cinematography looks like paintings come to life, the lighting, the composition, the wardrobe, set design, it’s all superb. The fight scenes are also beautiful to watch unfold, though alarmingly there is a little too much cutting in the edit for my liking, which you wouldn’t expect in a HK film.
The highlight of the film for me did not even involve Leung, but Zhang Ziyi fighting for vengeance beside a train departing a station. It’s a conventional fight compared to the others which are more philosophical and concerned with inner conflict, but the train station fight has real catharsis at its climax. Zhiyi is a real life legend portraying another, such a brilliant actress capable of continually astounding viewers with her many skills. The film is a showcase of many talents across the board.
As a character study though, the film leaves a lot to be desired. The way to experience the film is to let it wash over you. Wong Kar-wai does not stick to conventional narrative with his films, and such is the case here. With films like the achingly romantic Chungking Express and In The Mood For Love, there is clarity in the characters journeys, but not so much with The Grandmaster. I think my reserved feeling towards the film is also due to the fact that it’s about a person called Ip Man, the Grandmaster, and by the end I came away learning nothing new about him other than his fleeting unrequited relationship with Gong Er.
Zhang Ziyi’s character was by far the most interesting in the whole film, the one who I preferred the film followed instead. But regardless of the film’s flaws, its too beautiful to miss. There is only one director with this unique kind of vision, and seeing Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi flirt through a furious flurry of punches and kicks is as awesome as it sounds.