Tag Archives: The Grandmaster

Now Playing: The Grandmaster

The Grandmaster
dir. Wong Kar-Wai, 2013, Hong Kong/China

Rating: 8.8

grandmasters
The bottom line: grand mastery.

Opening this Friday in select U.S. cities is Wong Kar-Wai’s ambitious, years-in-the-making martial-arts epic/Ip Man-biopic The Grandmaster, which premiered in China back in January shortly before receiving its international bow — in slightly truncated form — at the Berlin International Film Festival. There has been a fascinating divide in terms of how the film has been received in the East versus how it has been received the West, which in many ways reverses how Wong’s movies are usually received: The Grandmaster has gone over much better in China (with both critics and audiences, becoming the director’s first true homegrown hit in a career spanning 10 features) than in Europe and North America. While Wong has typically been a darling of western critics and cinephiles — especially in the period lasting from Days of Being Wild in 1990 to In the Mood for Love in 2000 — his movies have often been quizzically regarded as arty and pretentious specialty items back home. I think the reversal evidenced by The Grandmaster‘s reception can be explained by what might be termed its China-centric qualities, especially the way Wong explores notions of Chinese identity and history and, perhaps most importantly, the philosophical side of kung fu (though it is also chock-full of good old-fashioned kick-ass fight scenes that should satisfy genre aficionados). Western critics have been quick to criticize the new film’s narrative “patchwork” quality (it is certainly the most elliptical thing Wong has ever made) and they definitely have a point. To paraphrase something Andre Bazin said about Robert Bresson, however, I would argue that Wong sees in his narrative awkwardness the price he must pay for something more important; for, while it may not be as “perfect” as beloved earlier films like Chungking Express or In the Mood for Love, I believe The Grandmaster‘s astonishing thematic richness makes it more profound than either.

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As a piece of storytelling, The Grandmaster definitely has the quality of seeming like it’s the digest of a much longer movie. The plot, such as it is, unfolds as a series of almost self-contained vignettes in the life of Ip Man (Tony Leung, underplaying but 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 a span of several years, sometimes with only intertitles to fill viewers in on crucial missing information. Characters who seem like they will be important (especially Ip Man’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. The film’s second most important character is Gong Er (an excellent Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a kung-fu master from the North, who is the center of a parallel narrative that sees her attempting to avenge her father’s murder, and who shares feelings of mutually unrequited love with Ip Man. While unrequited love has long been a pet theme of Wong’s, the characters’ emotions here, while deeply moving to witness, are not the film’s primary reason for being — as has always been the case with Wong’s movies in the past — but are rather the byproduct of a fascinating allegorical story about the paths different Chinese people took in terms of dealing with social upheaval and adapting to exile during a specific period in history. (Unusual for Wong, he collaborated on the original script with co-writers: Xu Haofeng and Zou Jingzhi.)

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One of the Grandmaster‘s most fascinating aspects is the way it illustrates how the philosophy behind kung fu can provide valuable lessons for not just how to fight but how to live. Wong has always been concerned with preserving the past — whether shooting old buildings for Fallen Angels that he knew would soon be torn down, to making Hua yang de nian hua (2000), a short film celebrating the golden age of Chinese cinema, to lovingly recreating the past of Hong Kong and China in Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, 2046 and The Grandmaster. The importance of preserving the past becomes the explicit theme of the new movie as Wong uses kung fu as a metaphor for Chinese culture in general — the “grandmaster” Ip Man is a teacher who passes along traditions and thus allows his cultural heritage to perpetuate. In this sense, 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 disrespecting tradition and sacrificing one’s own 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 Man and Gong Er are able to maintain their ideals (Ip Man informs Japanese government officials that he would rather starve than eat their rice), and live in exile in Hong Kong — although their differing philosophies ensure that they too meet different destinies. Gong Er betrays her father’s final wish in seeking vengeance for his death and allows herself to become mired in pessimism and opium addiction. Ip Man, 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. Regardless (and perhaps because of) the disjointed quality the movie takes in getting there, the final scenes are the most mature and humane that Wong has ever created.

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I hasten to add that I hope my analysis of the Grandmaster‘s thematic content does not make watching the film seem like anything less than the viscerally exciting experience that it is. The action scenes were choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-Ping and part of the fun of watching the characters fight is seeing how their personalities are expressed through their different fighting styles: the clever and humble Ip Man’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.” Razor — a master of the Bagua school — is both barber and undercover assassin, and wields as a weapon the blade that gave him his nickname. 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, has broken martial-arts movie tradition by capturing the fights not with long takes and long shots but by using close-ups, varying film speeds, fast cuts and an unusually shallow depth field. (This last aspect is a major trend in contemporary digital cinematography and has the effect of turning everything in front of the camera lens — drops of water, icicles, Zhang Ziyi’s porcelain skin, etc. — into a fetish object.) These breathtaking visuals, aided immeasurably by the bone-crunching sound effects, do not seek to whip viewers of the ADHD set into a frenzy the way that most spatially/temporally-challenged Hollywood action movies do. Rather, they manage to break down each fight — especially the instant classic train-station climax involving Gong Er and Ma San — into many comprehensible individual moments. In other words, to watch The Grandmaster is to take a master class in filmmaking.

You can view the trailer for The Grandmaster via YouTube below (please ignore the awful car-commercial voice-over):


Tony Leung Talks Training to Play Ip Man in WKW’s The Grandmaster

I shot this video at a Q&A in Chicago last night following a sneak preview screening of Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster. It was quite dark in the theater but the audio is clear. Tony is quite the charmer:

The Grandmaster opens in the U.S. on August 23rd.


CIFF 2011 – Twenty Two Most Wanted!

With the start of the Chicago International Film Festival only six weeks away, it’s time for my annual wish list of films I’d most like to see turn up there. This is a combination of movies that have generated buzz at other festivals throughout the year, movies by favorite directors whose production status I’ve been following in the press, recommendations from friends and even a title or two that may be nothing more than rumor. In alphabetical order:

Arirang (Kim, S. Korea)

South Korea’s Kim Ki-duk directed an astonishing 12 feature films between 2000 and 2008. The last of these, Breath, belatedly received its U.S. premiere at Facets Multimedia earlier this year and suggested that Kim’s wellspring of creativity had run dry, an impression seemingly verified by the 3 year silence that’s followed it. Arirang, Kim’s latest, is apparently a one man show/pseudo-documentary in which Kim himself examines this impasse a la 8 1/2. This premiered at Cannes where its supposed “navel gazing” quality drove many viewers up the wall. I say bring it on!

The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan)

When I put this on my wish list of films I hoped would turn up at CIFF last year it was nothing more than a pipe dream. Since then, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long rumored martial arts film actually did quietly begin production. Tadanobu Asano and Takeshi Kaneshiro have apparently joined a formidable cast that has long had Hou regulars Shu Qi and Chang Chen attached.

Bernie (Linklater, USA)

Richard Linklater has intriguingly described this as his version of Fargo – a quirky true crime tale set in his beloved native Texas. Jack Black (reuniting with Linklater for the first time since the excellent School of Rock), Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey star.

Carnage (Polanski, France/Germany)

Roman Polanski follows up his estimable The Ghost Writer with an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Tony award winning play about a long night of drinking and fighting between two married couples brought together after a playground fight between their children. Polanski’s talent for shooting in confined spaces and the sterling cast (Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet and John C. Reilly) make this a mouth-watering prospect.

A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Germany/Canada)

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play about the birth of psychoanalysis, which is depicted as stemming from an imagined rivalry between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). As someone who thinks Cronenberg’s recent Mortensen collaborations (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) are his very best work, my expectations for this could not be higher.

The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea)

Another character-driven Hong Sang-soo comedy/drama that premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar where it was universally admired, begging the question of why it didn’t land in Official Competition. This one apparently deals with the relationship between a film professor and a film critic. Expect the usual witty merry-go-round of booze, sex and self-deceit.

The Devil’s Church (de Oliveira, Brazil/Portugal)

A year after working with CGI for the first time, the great Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira continues to stretch himself by travelling to Brazil to shoot his first film outside of Europe (and his 57th overall). The Devil’s Church is based on a Faustian-themed short story by Machado de Assis, widely considered Brazil’s greatest writer. Ricardo Trepa, Oliveira’s grandson and favorite leading man of late, stars. CIFF’s fondness for Oliveira makes this a good bet.

Faust (Sokurov, Germany/Russia)

Speaking of Faust . . . I’m on the fence about Russian miserabilist Aleksandr Sokurov whose films frequently astonish on a technical level but fail to stir the soul in the manner of his mentor Andrei Tarkovsky. But this Russian/German co-production looks promising – a new version of Faust with Fassbinder’s muse Hannah Schygulla in the Marguerite role.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher, USA/Sweden)

English language remakes of recent foreign language films are almost always a bad idea but since the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is directed by David Fincher, we can assume it will be an exception. At the very least, Fincher, whose best work has featured dark, twisty narratives involving serial killings, expert use of CGI and Boolean logic that seemingly puts this project in his wheelhouse, can be counted on to push the material in an interesting direction.

Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran)

According to reports out of Cannes Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof made this film under “semi-clandestine conditions” while awaiting sentencing following his highly publicized arrest and trial for “anti-regime propaganda” in 2010. Goodbye uses the story of the disbarment of a female lawyer to allegedly tackle the repression of Ahmadinejad’s Iran head-on.

The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong)

This made my wish list last year and, knowing Wong Kar-Wai’s glacial pace of shooting and editing (and re-shooting and re-editing), it could also make the list again next year. A film about the early years of Ip Man, best known as Bruce Lee’s kung-fu teacher, “built around one of the most exciting sets and fighting sequences that I have ever seen” according to Fortissimo Films chairman Michael Werner who came on board as associate producer earlier this year.

Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Miike, Japan)

Takashi Miike continues his recent trend of remaking chambara classics, this time in 3D, by taking a stab at Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri from 1962. But with Miike, you can always expect the unexpected, and this project boasts surprising collaborators like veteran art house producer Jeremy Thomas and A-list actor Koji Yakusho (the favorite leading man of Miike’s mentor Shohei Imamura and the star of Miike’s superb 13 Assassins).

Le Havre (Kaurismaki, Finland/France)

I’ve never really warmed to the deadpan humor of Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismaki whose “minimalist” films have always struck me as less than meets the eye. His latest, a supposedly sentimental tale of immigration politics centered on a French shoeshiner and an African refugee, was by far the most critically admired film at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Color me interested.

Hugo (Scorsese, USA/France)

Martin Scorsese throws his hat into the 3D ring with this Johnny Depp/Jude Law-starring children’s film about a little boy who lives inside the walls of a Paris metro station in the 1930s. This will obviously receive a super-wide release; if it does turn up at CIFF it will be as a sneak preview “Gala Presentation” (hopefully with cast and/or crew present).

In the Qing Dynasty (Jia, China)

Another improbable but intriguing-sounding concoction is the latest from Jia Zhangke, the important, formidably arty chronicler of China’s tumultuous recent history, who appears to be making his first big budget film with this historical epic. Produced by none other than Hong Kong gangster movie specialist Johnnie To.

J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA)

Clint Eastwood’s critical stock is at the lowest its been in some time following his poorly received (but in my humble opinion misunderstood) melodramas Invictus and Hereafter. Stakes are therefore even higher than they otherwise would be for this J. Edgar Hoover biopic scripted by Dustin Lance Black and starring Leonardo di Caprio and Armie Hammer. As with Hugo Cabret, this will only make it in as a Gala Presentation (not out of the question since this happened with Hereafter last year). Sure to make my CIFF wish list next year is the prolific Eastwood’s next film – a remake of A Star is Born starring . . . Beyonce?

Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong)

This began life as a project titled Death of a Hostage when it started shooting (without a script) in 2008. Three years later, it’s finally complete and it sounds like Johnnie To’s most exciting in some time: a bank heist thriller starring the charismatic, enormously talented Lau Ching-Wan; the last collaboration between these two, 2007’s ingenious Mad Detective, was one of my favorite films of the last decade. Will Life Without Principle stack up? Is the title a reference to Thoreau? Is the above movie poster the coolest ever?

Night Fishing (Park/Park, S. Korea)

Park Chan-wook, the reigning innovator of the South Korean New Wave, caused a stir on the festival circuit earlier this year with this 30 minute horror short shot entirely on an iphone. This alone would justify the purchase of a ticket to one of CIFF’s notoriously erratic “Shorts Programs.”

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey)

Still photographer Nuri Bilge Ceylan made one of the great directorial debuts of the last decade with Distant, a deliberately paced, minimalist comedy about the growing estrangement between a professional photographer in Istanbul and his visiting country bumpkin cousin. If Ceylan’s subsequent films haven’t quite lived up to the promise of his debut, this film about a night in the life of a doctor living in the harsh title region (the gateway between Europe and Asia) should still be worth a look. Won the Grand Prix at Cannes.

A Separation (Farhadi, Iran)

Asghar Farhadi (Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly) is a CIFF veteran so one can only hope that this universally admired marital drama, which won three prizes in Berlin (including the Golden Bear), will turn up here – preferably as an in competition entry with multiple screenings.

This is Not a Film (Panahi/Mirtahmasb, Iran)

Like Mohammad Rasoulof, Jafar Panahi essentially made his latest film as a political prisoner in Iran. Co-directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, this documentary-style “diary” about the great director’s inability to work was smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick buried inside of a cake. The more attention that’s brought to the tragic plight of Rasoulof and Panahi the better.

The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary)

Hungary’s Bela Tarr took home the Best Director award in Berlin for this, his acclaimed final film. The premise is a fictionalized account of what happened to the horse Friedrich Nietzsche saw being whipped in Turin a month before the philosopher was diagnosed with the mental illness that left him bedridden for the rest of his life. Tarr himself has described this as his “most radical” work, a daunting claim from the uncompromising, austere maestro responsible for the seven and a half hour Satantango. I was fortunate to see Bela Tarr bring The Werckmeister Harmonies to CIFF in person in 2000. One can only hope he’ll see fit to do so again with this swan song.


CIFF – Twenty Two Most Wanted!

Here is a wish list of the 22 films I’d most like to see turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. The titles are a combination of films that played at Cannes in May, films that have been slated to play at the Venice or Toronto fests in the coming months and some serious wishful thinking.

22. The Housemaid (Im, S. Korea)
An erotic thriller in which a married man’s affair with the family maid brings tragic consequences. I would normally be skeptical of this, a remake of one of the best S. Korean movies of all time (Kim Ki-Young’s mind-blowing Hanyo from 1960), but this was made by Im Sang-Soo, director of the formidable The President’s Last Bang.

21. The Town (Affleck, USA)
Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone, was one of the great surprises of 2007: an effective genre piece boasting a terrific ensemble cast and some interesting sociological insights to boot. This sophomore effort is another crime thriller, starring Affleck and The Hurt Locker ‘s Jeremy Renner.

20. 13 Assassins (Miike, Japan)
A reunion between Audition director Takashi Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan that promises to melt more brains – in the audience if not onscreen.

19. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, France/USA)
A 3-D documentary about the earliest known hand-drawn images. Werner Herzog, whose best films in recent years have tended to be documentaries (see Grizzly Man), will almost certainly do something interesting with the 3-D format.

18. Secret Reunion (Jang, S. Korea)
I know nothing about this except that it stars the enormously talented Song Kang-Ho, veteran of many great S. Korean New Wave movies. Recommended by my film fest savvy friend David Hanley.

17. Another Year (Leigh, UK)
I always like to see what Mike Leigh is up to. If nothing else, you know the performances will be very good.

16. Accident (Cheang, Hong Kong)
A new crime drama from producer (and possible ghost-director) Johnnie To, arguably the best genre filmmaker in the world.

15. Black Swan (Aronofsky, USA)
I found The Wrestler to be Darren Aronofsky’s best film by a wide margin so I’m eager to see what he does in this follow-up, a dark thriller about rival ballet dancers starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.

14. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea)
An elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease takes a poetry course in this highly praised drama from S. Korean director Lee Chang-Dong. Won Best Screenplay at Cannes.

13. Film Socialisme (Godard, France/Switzerland)
A Mediterranean cruise is the jumping off point for the latest edition of Jean-Luc Godard’s global newspaper. This outraged many at Cannes (and predictably found passionate admirers among the Godard faithful) where it was shown with “Navajo English” subtitles.

12. Hereafter (Eastwood, USA)
After Invictus, director Clint Eastwood re-teams with Matt Damon for a European-shot supernatural thriller.

11. On Tour (Amalric, France)
Mathieu Amalric, a distinctive actor who specializes in comically unhinged characters, directs and stars as the manager of a traveling burlesque show. This has been compared to the work of John Cassavetes and indeed it sounds a lot like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. A surprise Best Director winner at Cannes.

10. Hahaha (Hong, South Korea)
School of the Art Institute grad Hong Sang-Soo is one of the most prominent writer-directors of the S. Korean New Wave. His latest comedy won the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar and had critics grumbling that it belonged in the main competition.

9. Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA)
Described as a “romantic noir,” this new film from Monte Hellman (director of the great Two-Lane Blacktop) is also apparently a movie-within-a-movie that he shot digitally with a newfangled still-camera. Hellman, returning after a too-long absence, has compared it to Last Year at Marienbad.

8. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Portugal)
This turning up is almost a certainty as the CIFF has shown 101 year old(!) Portugese master Manoel de Oliveira a lot of love in recent years, regularly screening his films since the late nineties. The Strange Case of Angelica premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes where it found many admirers. Adding to the interest is the fact that it’s Oliveira’s first time working with CGI.

7. Tree of Life (Malick, USA)
Brad Pitt and Sean Penn play father and son (though probably don’t share screen time) in a drama set in both the 1950s and the present day. If the last couple films by the reclusive, secretive Terrence Malick are anything to go by, this will probably open in New York and L.A. on Christmas Day, then have its Chicago premiere in early 2011.

6. Carlos (Assayas, France)
A five and a half hour epic period piece about the true exploits of left-wing celebrity/terrorist “Carlos the Jackal,” this would seem to be an abrupt about-face from Olivier Assayas’ last film, the sublime family drama Summer Hours. Originally made for French television, Carlos screened out of competition at Cannes where some critics claimed it was the electrifying highlight of the entire festival. Could conceivably play CIFF in one, two or three parts.

5. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong)
Wong Kar-Wai’s return to filmmaking in Hong Kong after taking a stab at an American indie (2007’s minor My Blueberry Nights) is a biopic of Bruce Lee’s kung-fu teacher, Ip Man. The all-star cast is headed by Wong’s favorite leading man, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who has said this will be a “real kung-fu film” with “many action scenes.” This is an intriguing prospect from the most romantic filmmaker in the world.

4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong, Thailand)
The latest from another SAIC alumnus, Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, who specializes in experimental/narrative hybrids. Joe made an auspicious debut with Mysterious Obect at Noon in 2000 and has only gone from strength to strength with each subsequent feature. Uncle Boonmee, a work of magical realism about the deathbed visions of the titular character, wowed ’em at Cannes where it converted previous skeptics and walked off with the Palm d’Or.

3. The Social Network (Fincher, USA)
Or “Facebook: The Movie.” If anyone can make a great film about the founding of a website, it’s David Fincher whose pioneering work with digital cinema in Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button established him as a Hollywood innovator and maverick in the tradition of F.W. Murnau, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick.

2. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, France/Italy)
More often than not, when a beloved auteur leaves his native country to make a film in International Co-production-land, the results are muddled and unsatisfying. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the shot-in-Italy, Juliette Binoche-starring Certified Copy, which has been hailed as a return to form of sorts for Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. (He’s working in 35mm again after having spent most of the past decade experimenting with digital video.) This nabbed Binoche a Best Actress award at Cannes and was favorably compared in some quarters to Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece Viaggio in Italia.

1. The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long rumored martial arts film starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen. This is probably a pipe dream as news of the project was first announced years ago but reports of the film actually going into production have never materialized. Still, one must dream.


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