The Grandmaster

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(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.

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In the Mood for Love

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(Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2000)

A Moment in Time

A man and a woman fall in love. After more than a century of film as a medium of artistic expression, one might assume there’s not much more to explore with regards to the traditional narrative love story. And yet, master Wong Kar-wai crafts one of cinema’s finest with the timeless work of art that is In the Mood for Love – a film at once steeped in nostalgia and memory, yet ushering in another century of film to come. The film stands at a crucial juncture for Wong and his cinema. It is undoubtedly his best work, and it is also a culmination of the defining features of his impressive ‘90s output. Wong was one of the most important voices of that decade with masterpieces Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express to his credit among other great films, and he had already established a highly polished, easily recognizable style with his debut feature As Tears Go By in 1988.

Such early success might have ruined a lesser artist, but Wong continued to find ways for his distinct aesthetic to serve his oft-explored themes throughout the ‘90s, and the definitive proof is in In the Mood for Love – the finest distillation of the filmmaker’s skills. There are traces of the kinetic flourishes found in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, but it’s refreshingly more subdued, yet no less exhilarating. In exploring the urban loneliness of each of his films, it narrows its focus on a pair of lovers like Happy Together, yet it’s far more nuanced in its portrayal of love and loss, memory and time. It’s a time capsule of Hong Kong in the ‘60s – the era of Wong’s parents – like Days of Being Wild, yet it’s a more poignant, intimate affair with its tale of impossible romance. Every time I watch In the Mood for Love, I am struck not only by its artistry as a whole, but by some new facet that has commanded my attention for its brief hour and a half runtime. Thus, it’s an incredibly difficult film to write about. Instead of attempting to make some grand statement about the film as a whole, I’ve opted for dissecting the work and highlighting each of its wondrous parts in turn.

“It is a restless moment.”

What may be most immediately striking about In the Mood for Love – and perhaps somewhat confusing for first-time viewers – is how Wong handles the passage of time. Especially in the film’s first twenty minutes or so as Wong introduces his characters and their initial relation to each other, time moves quickly. And, moments in between the meetings of new neighbors Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) are omitted entirely – an early scene of Chan (also known as Su Li-zhen) and Chow inquiring about apartment vacancies immediately cuts to both of them moving in next door to each other, and later Su learns of Chow’s illness and makes a soup for him, only for Wong to cut to their next interaction when Chow has clearly been well for a few days and thanks her for her kindness. The narrative decision is a bold one for the possibility of losing his audience, but it follows in the steps of both Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami – two other ‘90s greats who challenged their viewers to a greater depth of participation in their work. Too, by eliminating nearly every event in the story without Su or Chow, Wong firmly establishes the film as theirs. From the beginning, we know that the story will exclusively concern these two strangers since he also chooses never to show either of their spouses’ faces.

Time itself plays a significant role in the film as well. Though chronicling the lives of modern urbanites in the years leading up to the landmark handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China became Wong’s calling card as the twentieth century came to a close – the back-to-back companion pieces Chungking Express and Fallen Angels – harkening back to the city in the ‘60s suits the director like a glove. Wong returns to the time period of his breakthrough Days of Being Wild, and while In the Mood for Love isn’t exactly a strict sequel, it shares not only two of that film’s major stars, but also several of its themes. Most specifically, In the Mood is explicitly concerned with time and its effects on these characters’ romance, and it pays direct homage to its predecessor as the camera repeatedly lingers on an extreme close-up of a hanging clock. A clock hung above the ticket booth where Maggie Cheung’s Su Li-zhen worked in Days, and a near replica hangs outside her character’s office in In the Mood.

The moment – no matter how restless – is crucial in Wong’s work, and time is certainly of the essence for Chow and Su as their mutual love grows while their cheating spouses are away. What will happen for the pair when they return? Will there be time to make a rational decision for the future of their relationship, if there is one? Time becomes their ally and their foe – at once, their love develops in moments spent together, and yet as those moments run out, the inevitability of bidding farewell looms over their weeks together. It makes In the Mood a wholly unique film that pulses with an urgency, yet slows down enough to cherish the moments that make their final departure that much more heartbreaking.

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“You notice things if you pay attention”

As Chow’s wife and Su’s husband begin spending longer nights at work or taking unexpected trips or sick leave, the lonely neighbors start to suspect infidelity. Both are directly confronted with the devastating secret – Chow catches his wife lying about working late, Su overhears Chow’s wife talking to her own husband in her apartment when she’s supposed to be home sick – but Wong cleverly reveals the spouses’ affair through clues that both his characters and audience can follow. Su and Chow soon recognize accessories – handbags, ties – on the other’s partner that suspiciously resemble items of their own given by their husband or wife. This careless gift-giving practice is then mirrored in the dangerous game Su’s boss plays as he balances a wife and kids with a needy mistress. When Su’s husband travels to Japan for work, he picks up two articles of clothing in different colors for the boss’ two lovers. The farce is kept up seemingly harmlessly until the man’s deceit hits Su close to home. The neighbors, then, are first brought together at an expertly executed dinner sequence where the pair dances around the truth both have uncovered separately that devolves into acceptance and defeat.

Wong handles the film’s first third concerning this discovery with finesse. These scenes are exquisitely edited, adhering to his aforementioned passing of time motif, swiftly building to the inevitable reveal, yet pausing long enough for remarkable slow motion sequences highlighting this pair’s loneliness and eventual meeting. Nearing the dinner scene when Chow and Su admit what they already privately fear, Su indirectly cautions her unfaithful boss that “you notice things when you pay attention.” She is, of course, referring both to his unwise decision of sporting a new tie from his mistress to his wife’s birthday dinner and to the discovery of her own husband’s affair, but she may well have been speaking to the audience. Wong’s film is a stylistic masterpiece; and it requires only one viewing for its striking visuals to embed themselves in the memory, yet demands repeat viewings to catch every dazzling flourish. It’s at once a film of vibrant colors – Su’s plethora of intricately patterned dresses, the deep red curtains and flowery wallpaper of the hotel, the orange hue of the lamp-lit brick alleyways – and one bathed in haunting shadows and dimly lit streets. It’s a film of captivating camera movements and flashy editing – the quick track back and forth between Chow and Su dining at a restaurant, Su’s indecision regarding meeting Chow at a hotel captured through rapid fire editing as she races up and down the stairs in her clicking heels – and one that appropriately slows its pace to allow us to take it all in – the beautiful slow motion shots of billowing cigarette smoke or the sensuous movements of Su going out for noodles, the twin freeze frames of Chow and Su escaping down the hotel hallway. The images Wong captures cannot so easily be forgotten.

“I wonder how it began?”

In the Mood for Love takes a turn for the truly unexpected following the life-altering dinner as the pair becomes curious about how their spouses’ love affair began. In another instance of narrative misdirection, several of the scenes in this portion of the film open with the suggestion of an attraction growing between these scorned partners only for Wong to impressively subvert our expectations time and again as it’s revealed that the pair is merely role-playing. From the beginning of their friendship of convenience, they actively attempt to understand how and why their spouses ran into the arms of another. They mimic flirtatious banter and gestures but wind up accusing the other’s spouse of initiating the immoral relationship. They pretend to be the adulterous couple as they increasingly dine out together, but they accept unfamiliar tastes in food as a bizarre commitment to these roles. Later, when they cast aside these pretenses, the acting continues but the roles change – Chow plays Su’s husband as she practices confronting him about his affair, and when the expiry of their new relationship approaches, they even practice saying goodbye.

Not only is this aspect of the story a refreshing take on the cheating lovers scenario, it also serves Wong’s overarching themes of emotional longing and loneliness in the city. The people populating Wong’s cinema are typically melancholy individuals severely lacking something that they oftentimes cannot even place. Days of Being Wild’s Yuddy bounces from woman to woman in search of fulfillment, Chungking Express’ Cop 223 and snack bar attendant Faye both long for someone they hardly know, Fallen Angels’ hit man wanders the darkened streets of Hong Kong as a cold-blooded killer intentionally alienated from other human beings, and Happy Together’s ill-fated pair of lovers submits to a disastrous relationship in order to evade loneliness. And yet, Wong merely scratched the surface of emotional isolation in his mighty oeuvre prior to the apex of his exploration in In the Mood. Chow and Su are given a concrete reason for their sorrow following the revelation of their spouses’ infidelity, but even before they become aware, In the Mood is a portrait of lonely souls. Su prefers the company of the movie theater to her lively landlords who repeatedly and kindly invite her to join them for dinner or games. Chow intentionally works late and loses himself in his writing just to pass the time. Neither one goes out of their way to get to know their neighbors until they must. Su and Chow are the embodiment of loneliness, and this yearning for deeper companionship propels them toward the romance they never could have anticipated.

“We won’t be like them.”

And yet, as romantic feelings creep up on this pair unexpectedly, they vow early on that they won’t be like their spouses. At first, there are moral reasons, and neither one presumably loves his or her partner any less upon learning of the affair. And, neither one initially makes any plans to separate or divorce. But, when it becomes clear this affair is unlikely to fade, their vow becomes a point of pride – they can carry on a platonic relationship of their own, but they won’t stoop to the immorality of their spouses. This innocuous union encounters problems when their friendship comes under the weight of societal pressure. They may be proud of their refusal to become lovers, but they tiptoe around their neighbors and coworkers nonetheless. In one telling scene, Su gets stuck in Chow’s room while helping him write a martial arts serial. His landlords come home early and engage Su’s landlords in a days-long game of mahjong. Later, Chow moves out and into a hotel for fear of what people might say about their time spent together. And, eventually Su cuts back on their time when her landlady Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan) scolds her for staying out too late while her husband is away. Even if desire sneaks its way into their friendship, it seems their environment is bent on stifling it.

But the feelings remain. Their rhetoric assures them of their commitment, but when the prospect of Chow following a job to Singapore arises, the pair finds they can no longer deny the love that has grown unknowingly between them. Now, it seems, they finally understand how it began. And yet, In the Mood for Love boasts a strikingly singular romance for it’s also a portrait of unconsummated love. Yes, they’ve fallen in love as their spouses once did, but rather than become lovers, they heart-achingly decide to separate. It’s a poignant and challenging picture of love for an age saturated in sex, when the act has become synonymous with the feelings and covenant of love itself. Some viewers insist that Chow and Su do eventually sleep together (most argue following Su’s line “I don’t want to go home tonight” as they prepare to say goodbye), but I find this interpretation at odds with the film’s overall themes and its tragic denouement. Alas, Wong allows some sort of ambiguity leaving us to wonder, did they or didn’t they? It’s yet another layer of significant depth Wong adds to this tale of love and loss. Can they remain unlike them? Chow and Su hope so, but in the end the secret is buried in the walls of an ancient temple

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“If there was an extra ticket, would you go with me?”

Over the course of the film, Wong convinces us to fall in love with this couple just as they fall in love, but he never promises resolve. Their romance hangs in the balance for the entirety of the film, but we root for it nonetheless. This is in large part due to the atmosphere Wong creates within In the Mood for Love. Repetition plays a crucial role throughout the film, and in returning to the same settings and music Wong establishes a sacred space and sound for their relationship. The rustic alleyway below their apartment building, the greasy noodle stand, and the claustrophobic hotel room become the repositories of their memories. And, the two repeated pieces of music – “Yumeji’s Theme” composed by Shigeru Umebayashi and “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” performed by Nat King Cole – become the soundtrack to their blossoming romance. As long as the two songs play, there is yet a chance that Chow and Su might one day be together (tellingly, “quizas” translates to “perhaps”). Constancy leads to familiarity, and Wong gently envelops us in the love story he’s unveiling.

If much of the success of In the Mood’s emotive power is owed to Wong’s storytelling, then it must be shared with the solid performances of its two leads. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung turn career-high performances as lovers who fall in love by accident. The subtlety and grace with which they approach their craft (not only here, but in most of their work – especially when collaborating with Wong) makes us believe what we’re seeing. It’s impossible to remain unaffected when Su’s determined features give way to a blank stare then a mess of tears as she practices confronting her husband – captured in an extended take relying on the contortion of Cheung’s face and no dialogue – or when, in close-up, Chow reasons Su will not likely visit him as he waits for her at the hotel. Cheung and Leung are a commanding presence on screen, but it’s never out of histrionics or sheer star power, but always from honest-to-goodness acting.

When Chow decides to leave his wife and escape to Singapore, it either marks the end or the beginning of a relationship with Su. If she comes, as he hopes she does, there they will no longer have to worry about becoming like their spouses for their love can start anew. And if she stays, both understand it will be goodbye for good. It’s the most significant moment in Wong’s film – the decision to carry their romance to its logical, hopeful conclusion or to allow it to become but a memory engraved in the past. Since Wong is neither romantic nor sentimentalist, it should come as no surprise that when Su chooses to stay in Hong Kong – even with two late-film almost-but-too-late moments of potential meetings – it is the end of an era for this tale of unconsummated love.

“That era has passed.”

Chow returns from Singapore and visits his old apartment, and even though the audience knows that Su once again lives behind the doors of her old place, it’s too late now. Wong assures us that that era has passed for the once near-lovers. Chow pauses in front of Su’s door but continues on. But, instead of ending the film here, Wong cuts to another remote, tropical location. Chow is now in Siem Reap, Cambodia amongst the ruins of the mighty Angkor Wat. His reasons for traveling specifically here are unknown, but his intentions surface as he whispers into a large hole in one of the walls’ surfaces, alluding to a comment from earlier in the film. We never hear what he speaks into the silence, but one can only presume that it is nothing short of a confession of undying love to Su Li-zhen, perhaps the woman he loved the deepest, yet never knew so intimately. There’s a notable shift in the film’s style as Chow stuffs his secret in the stone crevice. Long tracking shots of the hollow corridors of this ancient temple replace the kinetic camera movements of the rest of the film, and beautiful new music plays in place of the pair’s former anthem. The solitary, forlorn strings of Michael Galasso’s piece are an inversion of “Yumeji’s Theme” suggesting once and for all that their love is of the past. It’s a haunting, heart-breaking, beautiful sequence. And, even though In the Mood for Love’s finale is devastating in its implication, it remains one of the finest portraits of love captured as a brief moment in time. Nothing lasts forever, but as long as the memory remains, the story is worth revisiting again and again and again.

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Days of Being Wild

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(Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1990)

Memories That Haunt

The English title for Wong Kar-wai’s second feature would serve as an apt descriptor of his entire body of work. The words strung together to form Days of Being Wild carry with it so much of what Wong’s cinema has come to be known for: a nostalgia for the past, a preoccupation with time, the recklessness of youth, and a suggestion that now those days are gone. From the fragile optimism of contemporary Hong Kong’s loneliest souls in Chungking Express to the devastating unconsummated romance buried in the walls of an ancient temple in In the Mood for Love to the beguiling haze of passion and loss in 2046, Wong’s best films impressively fuse these themes of ceaseless longing together to form an impressionistic portrait of romantic longing itself. Whether his characters pine for a person, a place, or even a specific time, the filmmaker seems to have established a monopoly on cinematic yearning highlighted by his distinctive style that has influenced others for nearly three decades. Days of Being Wild, then, is arguably where it all began.

The reckless youth at the center of Days is Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), an unrepentant womanizer and lost soul living in Hong Kong in 1960. Though his conquests include two beautiful and committed women, Yuddy appears more interested in discovering the identity of his birth parents, much to the chagrin of his adoptive mother and former prostitute Rebecca (Rebecca Pan). His relationship to these three women forms the crux of the film’s first half. The film opens on Yuddy’s overconfident courting of the timid and somewhat naïve Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and seamlessly transitions into his second fling with the exuberant showgirl Lulu (Carina Lau) in a matter of minutes. No one in cinema creates such exquisite montages quite like Wong and frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle behind the camera – Days representing their first time working together. The camerawork throughout is stunning – one late-film uninterrupted tracking shot from street to back room of a billiard parlor in Manila comes to mind – and paves the way for the pair’s greatest work in later films.

Parallel to Yuddy’s aimless wanderings, Tide (Andy Lau) is a policeman who takes an interest in the brokenhearted Su Li-zhen when she learns of Yuddy’s new relationship. The two walk the rainy streets of Hong Kong after dark, Tide seeking to comfort his companion, and Su Li-zhen trying to recover, but Wong withholds from his audience by not granting the couple a happy love story of their own – one of the many insistences that foreshadows the director’s opus In the Mood for Love. When Tide’s mother passes away, he quits the police force and becomes a sailor, leaving his potential love interest behind. Escapism plays a major role in Days of Being Wild with its characters fleeing from the memories that haunt them – Yuddy leaves for the Philippines in search of his birth mother, Lulu, lovesick, eventually follows him, Tide abandons his own home in the wake of personal loss, and even Rebecca makes for the U.S. with a younger man when she feels slighted by her son. By film’s end, only Su Li-zhen remains, but in her final scene menially collecting tickets at the football stadium where she works, her own memories linger like ghosts in her mind as well – Wong includes a shot of the clock that brought Yuddy into her life and one of the phone booth where she spent time with Tide.

None of the characters in Days of Being Wild find answers to the questions they seek. As with most of his films, each of these strands ends with an ellipsis. Only Yuddy’s fate is sealed for him when a scorned thug comes for him while on a train somewhere in the far-off Philippines. His death, with neither Su Li-zhen nor Lulu by his side nor the once-desired meeting with his birth mother behind him, appears to be less a rebuke of his careless way of life and more a portrait of the natural consequences of our many life choices. Sometimes we never do find what we’re looking for. Yuddy several times makes mention through voiceover narration of a bird that will never stop flying until it dies, and only by film’s end do we realize he’s always been referring to himself. Days of Being Wild, then, is a film of unexpected beauty – with Wong’s signature poetic narrative technique and exhilarating visual style – and sorrowful tragedy.

The notion that these stories remain incomplete is only reinforced by the film’s oft-discussed and dissected finale that features a well-groomed, and as yet unseen, Tony Leung dressing himself and preparing to leave a dingy apartment before it cuts to the credits. Audiences have tried to make sense of the daring narrative shift for years and have rejected Wong’s own claims that Tony’s inclusion was simply a preview of a planned, but scrapped sequel. While there may be some truth to that official version, it certainly doesn’t explain the complete detour with a new and unnamed character with no obvious connections to the story thus far. With both In the Mood for Love and 2046 (and Wong’s entire oeuvre for that matter) behind us, however, featuring incarnations of several characters from Days, it proves all the more fitting for Tony (presumably a young Mr. Chow?) to show up at film’s end. Wong specializes in fleeting, mythical moments oftentimes eschewing easy explanations, and Days of Being Wild perhaps features the best instance of that intriguing, and to some infuriating, quality.

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