(Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2013)
Tides of Change
Not since 1994’s wuxia film Ashes of Time has Wong Kar-wai attempted another genre exercise until now. With The Grandmaster, his long-gestating fictionalized biopic of legendary kung fu master Ip Man, Wong has submitted his own chapter to the expansive canon of martial arts pictures. Lest fans of the cinematic master fear he’s finally kowtowed to the pressures of filling theatre seats, make no mistake – his latest, though a slight departure in both setting and genre, is a Wong film through and through. One shouldn’t be surprised to find that his take on the famed story of Bruce Lee’s instructor is less a strict historical account of the man’s life or a crowd-pleasing action flick than it is a vehicle for Wong to further explore well-trodden themes that have been staples of his cinema since his debut in the late ‘80s.
More than Ashes of Time – his only other brush with action tropes – The Grandmaster evokes both the style and the nostalgia-soaked narratives of his early ‘90s period. And yet, fittingly, his latest is more mature thematically and in execution than career highlights Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, and Fallen Angels for its time period and aging central figure demand a more stately approach. If those three early films dealt with Hong Kong’s youth and the romanticized pining for eras of generations past rather than memories of their own, then perhaps The Grandmaster is even more poignant and hard-hitting as it explicitly concerns those who have lived through their nation’s better seasons and must find their place amidst national turmoil and permanent change.
Though Ip Man (Tony Leung) is the grandmaster of the film’s title, Wong instead chooses to visualize the shifting cultural and generational landscape in the character of Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). She is both student and daughter to China’s northern grandmaster Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) who, in his old age, passes over his skilled daughter to entrust his martial arts legacy to protégé Ma San (Zhang Jin). If there is one plot-driven thread that runs through the relative narrative wanderings of Ip Man’s story, it’s the story of Ma San’s betrayal and Gong Er’s subsequent quest for vengeance. As a whole, the film takes on the episodic quality mastered in Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express that finds characters walking in and out of the narrative in a non-linear fashion (notably Chang Chen’s brief appearance as the ruthless Razor who’s humbled by Ip Man’s natural finesse) tied together by the film’s protagonist’s philosophical and narrative voiceover.
This adherence to a tried and true aesthetic is The Grandmaster’s greatest strength. Yes, it boasts exhilarating choreography and its fair share of tense moments, but isn’t that a given in martial arts films? It’s more impressive what Wong does with this material – DP Philippe Le Sourd proves an apt stand-in for regular Christopher Doyle, and he and Wong work in tandem to filter these fight sequences through the director’s distinct perspective. Furthermore, and unsurprisingly, Wong extracts superb performances from his two leads. Leung effortlessly plays Ip Man as a wizened gentleman who convincingly conceals a brutal punch behind his winsome smile. And, Zhang turns a career-high performance as the film’s arguable true lead. Recalling her other great performance (also for Wong and alongside Leung in 2046), she conveys depths of emotion and a subtle elegance hiding a fiery passion with not more than her face. Wong captures Leung and Zhang in precious close-ups allowing both actors to do what they do best.
If Gong Er represents tradition itself and Hong Kong a place of exile for these mainlanders, then Wong once again beautifully and tragically crafts another treatise on longing for the better days of the past and urban loneliness in the face of inevitable change with The Grandmaster. Another era has passed. Nothing remains of it any longer. (Brilliantly, near film’s end, there is a stunning shot explicitly referencing the master’s opus In the Mood for Love as two would-be lovers meander down a darkened alley silhouetted by streetlights.) The Gong Family martial arts style and legacy ends with the death of Gong Er, and as modernity sweeps through Hong Kong Ip Man must compromise his own tradition in order to adapt. If there’s a glimmer of hope in the film’s denouement, it’s due in large part to the true story the film is based upon and the promise of Bruce Lee’s fruitful career.
Even as satisfying as Wong’s film is, it’s far from perfect or even one of his best. There’s an undeniable incompleteness to the project, and one can’t help but point fingers at Harvey Weinstein who insisted on a reedit before U.S. distribution. Thus, two versions exist – the original that wowed Hong Kong and swept the Asian film awards circuit and a shorter American cut – and Western viewers like myself are left to wonder what Wong’s complete vision for his Ip Man tale might have looked like. And yet, it only speaks to the director’s genius that a palatable version of a more than likely better film is still one of the year’s best. If My Blueberry Nights understandably worried fans that Wong had lost his touch, The Grandmaster suggests that perhaps one of recent history’s most exciting voices still has more to say.