The Grandmaster | Director Wong Kar Wai | Score: 6.4
At first blush, having art house/critical darling Wong Kar Wai direct a fact-based kung fu film about the man who would eventually become the teacher of Bruce Lee might seem as nonsensical as having Terrence Malick direct the next installment of The Expendables, but only if you’re conjuring up the idea of a martial arts-based movie as one of those chop socky affairs where everybody wails on everyone else levitating twenty feet in the air with a spear stuck through them. Suffice it to say: This is not that kind of kung fu movie. Instead, Wong has brought his reverently thoughtful style of filmmaking to the story, and sewn together an action spectacle whose basis is one of his favorite pet themes: timeless, unfulfilled love.
We begin in China in the mid-30s, where a seasoned Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) has become a master of the Wing Shin form — at the time, a style not particularly heralded. Nevertheless, due to his high character and dedication, he is still well thought of as a supreme talent in the South. When Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang), an elderly grandmaster from the north, comes to pay a visit to his southern contemporaries, he challenges Mr. Ip in a duel of wits as a means of stepping down to let the next generation begin their ascent. In doing so, he bypasses his own talented but reckless protégé, Ma San (Jin Zhang), whose fury eventually comes at the cost of the old man’s life, an act that thoroughly enrages Gong’s daughter, Gong Ye (Ziyi Zhang), who vows revenge.
Meanwhile, with Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, and their taking over of Ip’s home city of Foshan, things go badly enough for him and his family that he is forced to relocate to Hong Kong on his own and begin training other students in his ancient form as a means of providing for his family. Coincidentally enough, this is exactly where the beautiful and supremely talented Gong Ye has also relocated, a fact not lost on the still-smitten Ip, whose single duel with her ended in one of the only defeats of his career.
The film sweeps along incorporating Wong Kar Wai’s luscious cinematography (on this occasion using Philippe Le Sound in place of longtime DP Pung-Leung Kwan) and wistful romantic threading directly alongside battle scenes of exquisite grace and textural splendor. Wong’s film opens with a deliriously fun battle sequence in a driving typhoon, and continues on to include everything from an elegant wooden staircase to a snow-streaked train station to stage his mosaic fight scenes.
Still, battles and kung fu style recriminations aside (much is made of the different styles of the form that are endlessly argued about and proffered by their leading practitioners, one comes away from the film with a beginner’s grasp of the complexity and nuance of the argument, if little of the actual knowledge that might go with it), at its heart, the film is a tragically star-crossed love story. As a woman of principle, Gong Ye had vowed to the Buddha not to marry or have children as an honor to her fallen father, so even as her pledge is tested when she realizes Ip, her one true love, has arrived at her doorstep, she remains eternally honor-bound not to pursue their courtship.
Ip, for his part, as played with perfect, smiling simplicity by longtime Wong-muse Leung, is as committed to the philosophy of his art as Gong Ye is to her father’s continued honor. Rather than feel wronged or hard-done-by, he takes their situation in more or less stride, even though we are to understand how much she means to him.
The combination of cinematic styles, much as the grandmasters often combine kung fu forms to create stronger systems, works surprisingly well, even though the hybrid might seem a bit too slow for martial arts fans and a bit too focused on blade hands and power kicks for romance aficionados. For those of us in the middle, it’s a strikingly beautiful and winsome tale of loves lost and fists furious.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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