January 9th, 2013
(Below are thoughts on the film that I wrote down just hours after seeing the film for the first time with only Chinese subtitles and without considering the complex philosophies behind the film. For a more detailed and thoughtful take on the film, I would recommend Kozo’s upcoming review on LoveHKFilm.com and Maggie Lee’s review on Variety)
For a while, Wong Kar-wai’s THE GRANDMASTER had an “s” at the end of the title, and it’s easy to see why from the final product. Originally envisioned as the biography of Ip Man - the Wing Chun master best known as Bruce Lee’s master - THE GRANDMASTER is and isn’t the story of Ip Man. Ip is simply one of the major players in Wong’s epic about “Wu Lin”, or what one may call the martial arts world. The story covers part of Ip’s life from 1936 to 1960 (his death is also expressed in intertitles), but its scope is far wider than just one man’s life. This is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a contemporary wuxia film, and it is indeed every bit as arty AND as exhilarating as anyone can expect from a (real) wuxia film by Wong Kar Wai.
In ASHES OF TIME, Wong used the world of Jin Rong’s wuxia novels to examine themes like longings, regrets and unrequited love, going to the lengths of even taking out action scenes when he revisited it for the REDUX version. While THE GRANDMASTER visits such themes once again, they are not the focus in what is first and foremost a film about the “Wu Lin” world. Specifically, it’s about the different philosophies and traditions held by the schools that occupy it. In one breathtaking sequence, the masters of several northern style martial arts each spar with Ip Man (Tony Leung) to show him how to take on Gong Bao Shen, the retiring chairman of the Chinese Martial Artists Union in Foshan. With this sequence, not only does Tony Leung show how well he has acquaint himself with the style of Wing Chun, Wong Kar Wai also shows off his (and his collaborators - including martial arts scholar Xu Haofeng) dedication in faithfully depicting the various forms of martial arts in his film.
THE GRANDMASTER is indeed about Ip Man’s road to become the last one standing, but Wong never indulges in the glamorous myth-making that Tsui Hark did with Wong Fei Hung in ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA or Wilson Yip did with his IP MAN films. Ip Man here is not unlike the Chow Mo Wen character in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and 2046 - introverted, contemplative, cool in the face of any situation, and a man who finds himself caught in circumstances beyond his control. As a result, Ip Man isn’t a particularly interesting character if not for his skills in Wing Chun.
Instead, THE GRANDMASTER will be remembered for Zhang Ziyi, who plays Ip’s rival Gong Er, also Gong Bao Shen’s daughter and the heir to her family’s 64 Stance move. A strong-willed female martial artist out to reclaim her family honor despite her father’s rejection, Gong Er is such a strong character (thanks to Zhang Ziyi’s performance) that her story alone could’ve easily been made into a separate film. Wong has always been great at creating strong female characters, and Gong Er is definitely one of the best he has ever written.
At the same time, that shift in focus is ultimately THE GRANDMASTER’s major weakness. From the parallel narratives and Chang Chen’s brief, but memorable appearances, one can tell that Wong was trying to make a film that shows the contrast in the philosophies of the three masters/martial art styles: Leung’s Ip Man (Wing Chun), Zhang’s Gong Er (Baqua Quan), and Chang Chen’s Yi Tian Xian (Baji Quan). Each of the narrative would’ve been strong enough to become an individual film, but the film feels loose and not cohesive enough when put together in its current truncated form. There are parts of the film that are simply gorgeous and/or breathtaking, but those parts are ultimately greater on their own than the film as a whole.
An even bigger weakness? Chang Chen only shows up in three scenes that have no bearing on the two main stories. Yet, he is so good here (especially in his bloody fight scene in the rain towards the end of the second act) that you may wish the film is half an hour longer just so WKW could fit him in.
As a result, THE GRANDMASTER isn’t a film that will send anyone out of the cinema fired up. There’s no Bruce Lee or teeth-grinding foreign villains here to excite anyone. It’s a film about lamenting a bygone era, the price of pride and honor, and - being a Wong Kar Wai film - it also becomes a film about longings, regrets, and unrequited feelings. It is a beautiful art film a la Wong Kar Wai, but it is also a great martial arts film as well, though not in the traditional shallow way. Each of Yuen Wo-Ping’s moves is as intricately calculated and breathtaking as Wong Kar Wai and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s shots, but the choreography is simply part of what Wong and his co-writers are trying to express. THE GRANDMASTER is a martial arts film on both a physical and a spiritual level; a true examination of “Wu Lin” and how martial styles apply to life instead of just simple action escapism that most martial arts film fans would usually look for. In other words, as long as Wilson Yip sticks to his usual formula for IP MAN 3, he has nothing to worry about.
Despite what seems to be a muted praise, THE GRANDMASTER is still an excellent film – the technical aspects are top-notch, the actors are excellent (especially in their fight scenes), the dialogue are as quotable as ever, and its philosophical approach to martial arts will be appreciated by many wuxia fans. It also suffers from usual WKW weaknesses – the storytelling can be muddled at times, and most of the characters simply embody ideas rather than becoming real characters (Think Chang Chen or Song Hye Kyo, who has only one line and 5 minutes of screen time as Ip’s wife). It’s not a ground-breaking film in the genre, but it’s refreshing as a film that recognizes martial arts as a way of life rather than a nationalism tool. THE GRANDMASTER will certainly remain as one of the top Chinese films of 2013, and it was definitely worth the wait.
Me getting to the subway station after watching THE GRANDMASTER