Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Grandmaster


 Grade: 87/A-

Since his 1990s breakout with films like Chungking Express and Happy Together, Wong Kar-wai has been the quintessential romantic director of world cinema. His new film The Grandmaster is a bit of a departure- his first take on the kung fu genre since his 1994 film Ashes of Time, it is less spontaneous and more bound to narrative than most of his features. But that doesn’t make this project any less essential or personal. The Grandmaster is not the director’s most perfect film, but it may be one of his most moving.

The film tells the story of Ip Man (played here by Tony Leung), the martial artist best known for training Bruce Lee. Ip is a master of southern China martial arts in 1930s Foshan. When he defeats the southern grandmaster in a battle of philosophical ideas, the man’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) challenges him to a sparring match to reclaim her family’s honor; she wins, but the two clearly make a connection.

Before the two can have a rematch, the Japanese overrun China. Ip refuses to collaborate, he loses much his family to starvation. Gong, meanwhile, seeks revenge after the treacherous collaborator Ma San (Zhang Jin) murders her father. The two reconnect after the war, when Ip has moved to Hong Kong to teach martial arts, but find that what once was cannot be reclaimed.

It’s a lot of plot for Wong, a sensualist director who’s more comfortable with building films based around mood and feeling, and the film occasionally buckles under the weight of history. It doesn’t help that the U.S. cut (108 minutes compared to the Chinese cut’s 130) layers on the exposition so western audiences don’t get lost, or that the structure has been rejiggered from the international cut’s mostly linear storytelling to a sometimes jerky structure that follows Ip chronologically only to double back and tell Gong’s war story.

But for all of the U.S. cut’s flaws (which are not totally ironed out in the Chinese version*), it is still one of Wong’s most impressive acts of filmmaking. The fights were choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, who directed Iron Monkey and choreographed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix, and Kill Bill. They have the same balletic feeling as Yuen’s past work, but where those films were directed for maximum expression, Wong’s direction of the fights is impressionistic. In an opening fight between Ip and dozens of men, Wong cuts to show the mechanics of the fight- the placement of the feet, the use of hands, the deliberate movement- while also focusing on how the rain affects his movement, soak his clothes, flies up as it hits the ground. The fight is coherent, yet elliptical- the snapshots of the full picture are enough to make the impact.

The fight sequences are uniformly gorgeous, but they’re often just as impressive for what they say about the characters as they are for sheer physical awe. In a battle of wits between old master Gong and Ip, not a single blow is struck. Instead, it’s a dance as Ip tries to break a cake (that represents China) in the old master’s hands- what’s telling is that the master is more impressed by Ip’s philosophical, optimistic statement than by his success in the physical challenge. He believes that China, and Chinese martial arts, can be united.

More impressive still is the match between Ip and Gong Er, which pushes the balletic nature of Yuen’s choreography to its logical extreme as the two find they are worthy opponents. Wong’s shots of their faces nearly touching, their hands grasping each other’s forearms communicates more in images than any director could in words- in this match, they’ve found true love.

Alas, it is not to be. The Grandmaster often recalls Wong’s earlier masterpiece In the Mood for Love, not the least of which because both films have a strong, quietly charismatic center in Leung. The actor knows how to express a world of emotions through the slightest gaze, and he captures not only Ip’s intelligence and strength, but his loneliness and regret. A number of key shots isolate him by using the step-print method, which slows his motion down while the people around him move in fast blurs. He’s a man who’s loses everything- family, home, Gong, and a chance to bring together the martial arts world.

Zhang is just as strong as Gong. Her gender has kept her from being recognized as a martial artist, but if anything she’s made up for that with fierce determination and protectiveness of her family. She’s given a terrific foil in the malevolent Ma San, not to mention a great battle on a train platform that outdoes nearly every other fight scene in recent memory. But it’s her tragic arc that ultimately makes her so memorable- her choices, while noble, also limit what she can share with Ip by the end.

The Grandmaster might be more beholden to traditional storytelling than most Wong films, but it remains a Wong film through and through. Aided by a swooning, melancholy score and the evocative use of two Ennio Morricone pieces (including the Yo-Yo Ma version of Once Upon a Time in America’s “Deborah’s Theme”, his best work), it is a film filled with longing and loss, both for the lost martial arts and the unfulfilled romance at its center. It’s a film that knows that for the survival of Ip and his teachings, there’s a whole world that will never be seen again.

*The Chinese cut is interesting, in that it eliminates the exposition and disjointed feeling of the American cut, but for all of its sweep it occasionally feels a tad flabby. And while it contains a handful of indelible scenes that were unfortunately eliminated from the American cut (especially those that strengthen the loss of the Gong legacy), it is curiously missing an encounter between Ip and the martial artist Razor (Chang Chen) that underscores the “worthy opponent” connection between Ip and Gong. Neither cut is perfect, both are essential.

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