Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Grandmaster Movie Review

Admittedly, I’ve never given the films of Wong Kar Wai a fair shake. I tried 2046 a few years back and found it, at the time, to be a little inaccessible and didn’t finish it. And from what I know about his style, I get the sense they require deep focus and a high level of mental commitment. Probably they key is to see his movies in the theater where there are no distractions. Anyone who wants to know what happens when a director of Chinese melodrama tackles the martial arts genre need look no further than The Grandmaster. I suppose it’s almost inevitable that every Asian director gets around to doing it at least once. But only Won Kar Wai can do it and make it about something that isn’t really action-oriented at all.

It is sort of a historically-based, somewhat fictionalized account of Ip Man, the martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee when he was a child in Hong Kong, although there is never any mention of Lee. The film, written by Kar Wai, Jingzhi Zou, and Haofeng Xu, is not about him and not even really about Ip Man as much as it is about China as a nation in flux in the mid-20th century and losing a major portion of its traditional identity. This isn’t a standard biographical account on film.

In between beautifully choreographed fight scenes (designed by none other than Yuen Wo Ping) that are also shot in the most amazing photography (by Philippe Le Sourd) for an action film, are dialogues and conversations, most of which center on the nature of different fighting styles and the virtues and advantages thereof. Wong Kar Wai is drawing connections between how one lives one’s life and the way kung fu is used. Ip Man (Tony Leung) is a kung fu master, selected to reign as the Southern master defending the country after Master Gong ages into retirement. Ip Man has challengers who attempt to unseed him, but the only one who presents any obstacle, either physical or emotional, is Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). Shortly after their first meeting, the Japanese invade and the country is turned upside down. The state of martial arts discipline and mastery, already slowly disappearing with the modern society of the early 20th century, becomes even more broken.

Kar Wai is like a slower, more meditative Chinese Douglas Sirk. Melodrama fills the air as years pass and an unspoken, but strong passion, exists between Ip Man and Gong Er. Kar Wai uses lush music and grand settings and often places his characters in slow motion tableaux, the effect of which is a languid pacing, punctuated by Wo Ping’s fight scenes, each of which adds additional layers to the story.

This is a historical film that doesn’t attempt to teach anyone about Chinese history. Instead, it is an exploration of divisions – political, personal, philosophical, and physical – that is greatly enhanced and compounded by knowledge of that history. I think having some investment in the cultural and historical development of China through the middle part of the last century would greatly add to one’s appreciation for the film. Even without that specialized knowledge, the film remains hypnotic in a way that can guide you through exhilaration if you’re willing to give yourself over to it.

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