The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai
NOTE: I’m going to try something different this time. I’m going to approach this as both a film review and a guide on how to enjoy this film.
Plot summary: The Grandmaster chronicles the life story of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s master.
Set in 1940s Fushan, Canton province, the martial arts community, lead by Gong Yutian (played by Wang Qingxiang) from the north, is retiring and holds a challenge to select an heir to bring southern martial arts to the north. The southern community elects Ip Man (played by Tony Leung), the shining newcomer, up for the challenge. Ip Man develops a friendship with Gong’s daughter, Gong Er (played by Zhang Ziyi). The story crosses two decades as Ip Man and Gong Er stand the tests of life. The Japanese Army invasion of Fushan forces Ip Man into poverty and he resettles in Hong Kong. A mutiny within the Gong family sets Gong Er on a quest for revenge. In a time where age-old tradition is being replaced with modernity, how much can one uphold their principles? Who will pass on their lineage?
Who takes 14 years to make a movie? Wong Kar Wai is truly one-of-a-kind. He’s the only filmmaker who can take unlimited time with financial support (the backers who most likely will lose their investment) and a team that is willing to plunge to the depths with him. It shows in his work. Watching a Wong Kar Wai film is the cinematic equivalent of taking a warm bath loaded with multi-colored bath salts in a gallery full of lush oil paintings where everything is a visualized metaphor. Feelings matter more than character, and you’re invited to indulge and feel your way through his films. And boy, nobody can visualize a metaphor like Wong Kar Wai.
Phillipe Desourde’s photography and William Cheung Suk Ping’s art direction is top notch. People often attribute the credit to the cinematographer and overlook the fact that something has to be made beautiful in the first place to look beautiful on screen. Every set here is an art piece, notably the Golden Brothel set and the train station set.
Tony Leung’s Ip Man is portrayed akin to a normal gentleman. I’m the biggest Donnie Yen fan in the world and as good as he was playing a dramatized version of Ip Man, Tony Leung’s scholar-like image is closer to who Ip Man is in real life. On the kung fu side, Leung is not Donnie Yen but achieves the necessary physicality and fights convincingly than the quick editing suggests. The subtle interplay between Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi that teeters between a could-be romance and a genuine soul mate was played well.
Speaking of which, this may be the best Zhang Ziyi role yet. She’s never been more likable in any other role I have ever seen her in than here. Gong Er is the film’s most relatable character, carries the most pathos and energizes the film by providing the audience someone to root for. When she fights, the stakes are high. There is a somewhat of a battle between fact and fiction within the film’s construct. It’s almost as if Gong Er, a fictitious character representing tradition, brings the traditional tropes of what one may expect from a martial arts film. While Ip Man, on the other hand, is married to historical fact and delivering the film’s message. More on that later…
The fights are filmed tightly, but for a reason. Wong Kar Wai is interested in the details of the movements: the little twists, nudges and arcs where one gathers power that are all specific to each style of Chinese martial arts. For people who are familiar with the basic concepts of Wing Chun, Baqua, Xingyi and Baijquan, it’s quite the rare visual treat as bigger movements usually bold better for onscreen fight choreography. For those who are not familiar, fear not! There is a sequence where the film presents these different styles, look out for it! The oversaturation of Ip Man films (this is the 4th and there is a 5th coming soon starring Anthony Wong as an older Ip Man) really has limited the creativity to presenting Wing Chun as a martial art. It’s safe to say most audiences know what Wing Chun looks like now.
It sounds as though there are a lot of qualifiers for one to understand the film. The world of the film exists within the martial arts community of an older time, where people lived with their own set of rules and traditions. Wong Kar Wai is very interested in presenting these traditions, and similar to how he’s filming the action, it’s like he’s trying to keep a record of it. Characters speak in idioms with multiple subtext underneath (as martial artists do in that time). There were some instances where I had an itch to rewrite some of the subtitles because they would translate the entire idiom literally to keep the subtext of the Chinese dialogue. That’s a noble effort, but it may prove difficult for English speaking audiences.
A detail I noticed between the early promotional posters to the actual movie poster was that the early ones listed the film’s title as The Grandmasters and the actual movie poster’s title is named The Grandmaster. It makes me speculate that there probably was a story decision amongst the creative team whether the story should be solely focus on Ip Man or whether it should be about all three of the masters together. That was precisely what the narrative needed to decide on. Whether if I’m right or not, this is a case of a film that clearly has shot too much footage and was forced to be cut down upon its due date. The first cut was reportedly 4 hours and this really came apparent to me upon reflecting about the film. There seems to be a lot lost on the editing floor and unwillingly creates gaps in the narrative.
If you’ll indulge me, here are some facts about Ip Man’s life that will help you with the film:
- Ip Man was born rich, collected rent from owning property and never worked a day in his life till later when the Japanese invaded and took his home in Fushan.
- He was offered a job to train the Japanese army and turned it down.
- He later escaped to Hong Kong because he was a member of the Guomingdang. His wife stayed in Fushan and it remained that way for the rest of their lives.
There is much to love about The Grandmaster. It is not a martial arts movie in the traditional sense in where its conflicts are solved by fighting. No, this is a story about legacy. It’s about the deeply embedded Chinese Confucian value of improving the quality of life for future generations by passing on our culture and heritage responsibly. Every character in the film is driven by this single motivation and each take it to different places. To quote a line from the film, (I’m paraphrasing) “A martial artist’s biggest enemy is life itself.” Ip Man is a grandmaster not because of his physical prowess, but because he stood up to life (which was quite tragic) and kept to his grand vision of spreading Wing Chun. This was the impetus that eventually lead Bruce Lee to starting Jeet Kune Do, spreading Chinese martial arts across the world. I really love the fact that someone made a film about this.
To be frank, all the big budget revisionist history films and wuxia films in current Chinese cinema is boring me. The big budget action films are getting louder and more repetitive. As for the historical epics, I value the importance of reminding the next generation of the past but it ultimately culminates an overwhelming sense of gloom across the nation and it affects how China is perceived internationally because of it’s hate-mongering nature. It’s emotionally tiring as a moviegoer annually sitting through films in which Chinese people suffer as filmmakers and producers check off every historical tragedy we’ve been through in the last century.
Wong Kar Wai manages to present an age-old Chinese value without a blatant sense of nationalism or bitter finger pointing. It made me proud as a Chinese. This is a higher level of artistic achievement than simply revising history. After all, as filmmakers and artists, what are we leaving behind to the next generation? Are we making films to remind people of the past so we can carry the anger? Is that the extent of our cultural capital? Or can we bring them to another place with emotional breadth and positivity?
That’s what ultimately won me over about The Grandmaster. It had a lot of heart, in how the film was made, it’s microscopic attention to detail and in it’s message. It maybe esoteric, and even downright alienating to some viewers, but the rewards are worth the effort!