I didn’t have the chance to post this last Friday, when it first appeared at http://www.cinefile.info, as I was traveling. But I’m proud of this review I wrote about the 130-minute cut of Wong Kar-Wai’s underrated THE GRANDMASTER, which screened at Doc Films.

Wong Kar-wai’s THE GRANDMASTER (Hong Kong/China)

Doc Films (at the University of Chicago) – Friday, 7pm

While Wong Kar-wai has been a darling of Western critics and cinephiles for much of his career, his movies have been regarded as arty and pretentious specialty items back home in Hong Kong. The reversal of this trend with THE GRANDMASTER may be explained by its China-centric qualities, namely its deep exploration of Chinese identity and history and the philosophical side of kung-fu. Western critics lamented the film’s “patchwork” quality (it is certainly the most elliptical thing Wong has ever made), and they have a point. But to paraphrase something André Bazin wrote about THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, THE GRANDMASTER’s narrative awkwardness is the price Wong pays for something more important; for, while it may not be as “perfect” as beloved earlier films like CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994) or IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000), its thematic richness makes it more profound than either. THE GRANDMASTER definitely seems like the digest of a much longer movie: the plot unfolds as a series of self-contained vignettes in the life of Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, charismatic as ever), a real kung-fu master who immigrated from southern mainland China to Hong Kong in the mid-20th century, single-handedly popularized the minimalistic fighting style known as Wing Chun, and became Bruce Lee’s first teacher (yes, an adorable moppet turns up as young Bruce in the final scene). Each scene feels like a narrative block that has been separated from the ones that precede and follow it by several years, sometimes with only intertitles supplying crucial missing information. Characters who seem like they will be important (like Ip’s wife and a mysterious barber/martial artist known as “Razor,” played by Song Hye-kyo and Chang Chen, respectively) pop up for a scene or two, make a big impression, then vanish for the rest of the movie. The second most important character is Gong Er (an excellent Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a kung-fu master from the North, who, in a parallel narrative, attempts to avenge her father’s murder and shares feelings of mutually unrequited love with Ip. Unrequited love has long been a pet theme of Wong’s, but the characters’ emotions here, however moving, are not the film’s reason for being. They are instead the byproducts of a fascinating allegory about the paths different Chinese people took in dealing with social upheaval and adapting to exile during a specific period in history. Wong has always been concerned with preserving the past, and the importance of preserving the past becomes the explicit theme of THE GRANDMASTER, as Wong uses kung-fu as a metaphor for Chinese culture in general—the “grandmaster” Ip is a teacher who passes along traditions and thus allows his cultural heritage to perpetuate. One of the most important scenes shows how Gong Er’s father, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), is incapable of teaching his traitorous disciple, Ma San (Zhang Jin), a particular kung-fu move that involves the act of “looking back.” Ma San soon colludes with occupying Japanese forces and thus symbolizes disrespect of tradition and sacrifice of one’s integrity in order to survive. Gong Yutian informs Ma San that he will never attain the highest level of martial arts—the ability to “see humanity,” which follows “seeing oneself” and “seeing the world.” By contrast, Ip and Gong Er are able to maintain their ideals and live in exile in Hong Kong—although their differing philosophies ensure that they meet different destinies. Gong Er betrays her father’s wish in seeking vengeance for his death and allows herself to become mired in pessimism and opium addiction. Ip, however, has the ability to look forward and backward simultaneously; his essential optimism—even in the face of overwhelming suffering (two of his daughters starve to death, and he and his wife are separated from each other against their wishes)—ensures that he alone among the film’s characters is able to “see humanity,” and that his Wing Chun school in Hong Kong will flourish. The final scenes are among the most mature that Wong has created. The action was choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-Ping, and part of the fun of watching these characters fight is seeing how their personalities are expressed through different fighting styles: the clever and humble Ip’s brand of Wing Chun is based on the precise execution of a few effective blows, while the more petulant Gong Er is the last remaining practitioner of the maximalist style known as “64 hands.” Wong, working with his longtime editor (and production/costume designer) William Chang, as well as collaborating for the first time with cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd, breaks with martial-arts movie tradition by capturing the fights not with long takes and wide shots but by using close-ups, varying film speeds, fast cuts, and a shallow depth of field. (This last aspect has the effect of turning everything in front of the camera lens—drops of water, icicles, Zhang Ziyi’s porcelain skin—into a fetish object.) The breathtaking visuals, aided by bone-crunching sound effects, make each fight—especially the instant classic train-station climax involving Gong Er and Ma San—a master class in filmmaking. Screening as part of Doc’s Friday series: In the Mood for Wong Kar-wai. Note: There are three different versions of THE GRANDMASTER. The version playing at Doc Films, the domestic Chinese cut, is the longest, running 22 minutes longer than the version released in the U.S. by the Weinstein Company in 2013. (2013, 130 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

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