The Grandmaster is Wong Kar-Wai’s first Chinese-language feature in eight years — his last was 2046 in 2004 — so high expectations are natural. This is what happens when a director makes instant classics, achieves international fame and then takes too long to complete his subsequent films. Given the ever-present hype surrounding him, disappointment at anything Wong Kar-Wai creates now is understandable. So dial down those expectations for The Grandmaster. It can’t be In the Mood for Love because its star character is real-life martial arts master Ip Man, and it can’t be Fallen Angels or Chungking Express because it’s a period piece that takes place in a time before the MTR, convenience stores and canned pineapple. Like it or not, we’re getting a different sort of Wong Kar-Wai movie. That’s good news, because while The Grandmaster possesses a pretension and themes similar to previous Wong works, it also reveals potentially exciting growth for the already deified director.
In 1930s China, retiring northern Baquazhang master and Chinese Martial Artists Union chairman Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) takes on a final sparring match against southern Wing Chun practitioner Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), a rich upstart whose smirky demeanor belies a mature inner calm. Not intending to compete, Ip Man is thrust into the limelight by his peers and takes on Master Gong in the Gold Pavilion, an upscale brothel used for hidden martial arts shenanigans and portrayed in a ridiculously ornate fashion by Wong Kar-Wai’s long-time production designer William Cheung. The match is short and largely technical, with Ip Man using inner strength and subtle technique to assert his superiority over Master Gong. Incensed at the loss, Master Gong’s daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) issues Ip Man a challenge to avenge her family’s previously undefeated record. Their duel is more active, graceful and balletic, like leftovers from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and as the two spar, an emotional connection forms.
A union between Ip Man and Gong Er is forbidden by propriety — he’s married to Cheung Wing-Sing (a limited Song Hye-Kyo) and she’s engaged — plus larger events keep them apart. In the ensuing years, Ip Man and Gong Er are connected only through intertitles hinting at their affection. Ip Man copes with the Second Sino-Japanese War, which strips him of his fortune and compromises his personal integrity, while Gong Er seeks vengeance upon Ma San (Zhang Jin), her father’s former number one student who betrayed their clan. Gong Er’s actions require a remarkable sacrifice. Against her father’s explicit wishes, she chooses vengeance over a future as a doctor and wife. As she did when she challenged Ip Man, Gong Er chooses the path laid out by wu lin (the "martial world") — a path that ensures that her family honor remains intact even if she must give up her life. Eventually, Gong Er and Ip Man meet again, but time, triumphs and tragedies have taken their toll.
Like other Wong Kar-Wai movies, The Grandmaster is light on narrative urgency, its storyline framed around Ip Man’s life but told using key events that aren’t always connected spatially or temporally. Despite the presence of a revenge story, there’s no real rising action. Instead, what binds the film is the theme of how martial arts and life intersect. Two concepts are used to highlight this theme. One is delivered through voiceover by Ip Man, who describes the characters for kung fu as being composed of the “vertical” and “horizontal”, which refers to the outcome of a fight when one combatant stands upright while the other lies defeated. The second concept has to do with three levels that signify the highest achievement in martial arts. This comes through a verbal lesson from Master Gong to Ma San, expressing that while Ma San has achieved the first two levels, he has yet to reach the third and likely never will.
These ideas are explored throughout The Grandmaster, and while the loose structure makes for an uneven experience, there’s still a clear and resonant arc for each character. Both Ma San and Gong Er make active choices, with emotions like anger, pride and also love preventing both from ascending to the highest level of kung fu. Ip Man also possesses these emotions – most obviously seen in his hidden affection for Gong Er — but chooses a less resistant or self-aggrandizing path. Ip Man is very passive, but in choosing to rise above ambition or pride he’s poised for higher achievement. This is the martial arts world viewed through a humanist lens — a slyly subversive idea and one that’s a tweak on the usual Wong Kar-Wai M.O. Unlike other Wong films (notably Ashes of Time), the regretted romance is not the driving force, and is instead a consequence. Using emotions to subvert genre is an old trick for Wong, but in The Grandmaster he raises his game by placing his priority on the world and not the individual.
Wong’s trademark style remains lush and pretentious, which is both a compliment and a minor frustration. Wong wastes no time catering to expectations: The Grandmaster is superficially gorgeous, the caveat being that the visuals neatly fit expectations of Wong Kar-Wai and indeed most pop-art Asian cinema post-Wong. There’s little freshness in forbidden lovers gazing at one another in slow-motion, and the claustrophobic cinematography fits right in with Wong’s self-absorbed 21st century aesthetic. The artifice extends to the kung-fu sequences; Wong combines slow motion impact with overblown art direction and evocative details to create a familiar visual feast. Such style is calculated and without spontaneity, and does less here than in, say, In the Mood for Love, where mood and atmosphere were paramount. Nowadays, in this postmodern movie culture, having warriors battle in the rain at night only seems like visual shorthand for “this is awesome.” A different visual direction would have been welcome.
Furthermore, why did this have to be an Ip Man biopic? As presented, Ip Man fits Wong’s themes, and the depth of martial arts detail greatly helps to convince. But is this really Ip Man? Or just Wong Kar-Wai’s idea of Ip Man — a different but no less fictional one than the puffed up folk hero presented in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man movies? Audience familiarity with Ip Man aside, Wong could have crafted a similar film with Tony Leung playing a fictional martial arts master experiencing the same martial world journey, but instead we get an unfocused biopic that detours questionably and too often. Besides the heavy focus on Gong Er, who’s arguably the film’s real protagonist, we get “The Razor” (Chang Chen), a Chinese spy and Bajiquan master whose journey from assassin to ass-kicking barber makes a nice parallel to Ip Man – and yet he’s only in three scenes, two of which qualify as action set pieces. Chang Chen is electrifying when he appears but all things considered, he could have been cut and the film would have been fine.
Wong Kar-Wai has long eschewed conventional screenwriting and filmmaking rules, but that doesn’t mean his choices are always correct. There’s a patchwork quality to his work that’s seductive and dreamlike, and yet one could ask if that’s the proper approach to this subject. There’s really no right answer, so it may come down to the audience and how they take Wong’s elliptical storytelling, the dazzling and artful action by Yuen Woo-Ping, and the collection of talent. Tony Leung is by turns smirky and stoic, and has the unenviable task of playing a man whose passions are so deeply buried that he’s basically hidden them completely from view. Leung’s performance is an epic bit of underplaying that’s easily overshadowed by Zhang Ziyi, who shines brightly as Gong Er. Her character possesses the most complete arc, and Zhang brings a fierce dignity and willful emotion to the role. Zhao Benshan, Shang Tielong and especially Wang Xingqiang impress in supporting roles, while martial artist Zhang Jin balances physicality and performance well. Familiar Chinese cinema faces dot the background, adding some “Hey, it’s him!” fun for the inclined.
As always, Wong Kar-Wai movies are not for everyone. The Grandmaster’s arty qualities are as pronounced and self-conscious as ever, so if you can’t stand pretentious claptrap then don’t bother to check in. Western fans of Wong Kar-Wai may fall in line simply because it satisfies the superficial expectations of Wong’s films while providing some of that exotic “Asianness” that plays so well on the festival circuit. However, the breakthrough for Wong Kar-Wai may be the film’s complete thematic ideas and its appeal to Chinese audiences — who, frankly speaking, have never been Wong’s greatest cheerleaders. Wong’s work has long been characterized by its self-absorbed characters and emotions — making his films “universal” beyond cultural borders — but The Grandmaster deals with filial piety, humility and other humanist ideals, and implies that perhaps the one who stands upright at the end is merely the one who chose the most decent path. That’s not as compelling a theme as “I regret not cherishing the one that I loved most” but it’s a far, far more mature one. A maturing, more worldly Wong Kar-Wai? The possibilities are endless. (Kozo, 1/2013)