The Grandmaster

 

There are misgivings even during the opening scene of this decade-straddling epic about Ip Man, generally described as “the man who trained Bruce Lee”. There’s legendary martial artist Ip Man (the impassive Tony Leung) in a stylish straw hat taking on a phalanx of uglies in a torrential nighttime downpour. Slo-mo rain. It’s the sort of visual cliché you might expect from Uwe Boll rather than one of the most gifted film-makers in the world.

But, a bit of plot. The film kicks off in the 1930s when, Leung’s voiceover tells us, Ip Man is about 40, a content, wealthy resident of Foshen with a lovely wife and a rich cultural life. This is all kicked into the air after a bake-off between competing branches of kung fu called by the retiring Master Gong, who has in tow his beautiful, skilled and icy daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, of Crouching Tiger fame) and wayward disciple Ma San (Zhang Jin). Over the intervening years the Japanese invade, the nationalists come and go, and the era of Mao begins, with Gong Er and Ma San both re-appearing in Ip Man’s life like punctuation marks.

Why is Wong Kar Wai making a biopic about Ip Man, whose story has already been told many times before (notably by Donnie Yen in two films)? I suspect it’s his attempt to outdo Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And maybe in the original four hour edit it does. But in this incomprehensible two hour ten minute edit (Wong says he will “never” release the original version) little makes sense, and Wong’s choices always tend towards the visual rather than the dramatic. In short, half the time it’s difficult to know who everyone is.

There are two distinct ways of shooting physical action in movies. When it’s people who know their stuff, say Donnie Yen or Fred Astaire, the camera stays back, letting the viewer take in the spectacle – real bodies doing really amazing things in real space and time. When the actors don’t know their stuff, say Bruce Willis or the cast of Chicago, then the smoke and mirrors of the edit suite takes over.

Leung trained for 18 months to do this movie, but even so is no grand master. Wong reciprocates with an ingenious shooting style that is a little bit Astaire, a little bit Willis. And he comes up with something that does actually work: impressionistic blurs of movement, fast edits and swivel pans pausing periodically to focus on a decisive tactical moment – often a “push” move of the hands or feet. It’s very effective and, now and again, breathtaking.

Wong stages these fights in locations that are chocolate boxy in the extreme – a lush high end brothel, a station wreathed with locomotive smoke, a snowy landscape.

But never mind all that, the martial arts fans will be saying, who did the fight choreography? The answer is Yuen Woo-Ping, of Kill Bill and The Matrix fame, and Yuen does put on some mighty fine shows, though I was often not sure who Ip Man, or Gong Er, was fighting, and why – except when the two leads fought each other and all was abundantly clear. This was chop-socky courtship.

With this romantic Ip Man/Gong Er strand Wong is aiming specifically for the withheld love vibe of In the Mood for Love, his most famous film, which he also tried to re-bottle in his Blueberry Nights. And it doesn’t work here either, this time because Wong has introduced Ip Man’s wife early on and then not clearly explained the nature of their relationship. Or maybe all was explained in the four hour version. And who is this guy Razor who pops up here and there, spoiling for a fight? Again the four hour edit might have the answer.

But never mind all that, Wong appears to be saying in his editing decisions, look at all the pretty pictures. In this he’s directly in the tradition of David Lean after his work jumped the shark (about halfway through Lawrence of Arabia) when his visual eye started to get the better of his storytelling brain.

This is a heroically beautiful film but a godawful mess in all other respects. I followed it up with Lav Diaz’s epic Filipino masterpiece Norte, the End of History – a four hour epic I sat through with my eyes glued to the screen. Did Wong Kar Wai not trust audiences with the full banquet? Perhaps he should think again.

 

The Grandmaster – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

4 thoughts on “The Grandmaster”

  1. Surely, this is a compromised film. Years in the making, and has one foot in the blockbuster league which means it has to address a wide audience, satisfy investors and make a healthy recoup—in the Chinese market, it did. What both these mean is that Kar Wai had to set up artificial limits to his vision, then swim to real ones, limits he cares to meet as an artist, then see how swiftly he can move back and forth.

    But let's not mince words here. Kar Wai is a cinematic master. And I'm sure I will remember this as one of the most interesting, most wonderful, most visual films of the year come December.

    Right off the bat, you should know that if you want the clean, rousing version of Ip Man you should go to the Donnie Yen films. It's a legend anyhow, most martial arts stories are (especially the Chinese), embellished in the telling. So if you want 'truth', you're looking in the wrong place to begin with. About Ip Man, you should know that the fighting style he is supposed to have originated called wing chun, at least as taught now, takes some old Taoist notions about softness and intuited flow and creates a uselessly complicated and scholastic system of study.

    But the notions are powerful, and this is likely what attracted Kar Wai to a film about him.

    So the artificial limits here are the kung fu movie, a type of narrative deeply embedded in the national character. So we get familiar history as the backdrop, Civil War, Japanese invasion and so forth. The film will be familiarly lush and operatic for the Chinese. It also means we get fights, we do—some marvelous ones. It means we get the heroic portrait—the good vs evil sifus, tied to contrasted history, tied to the passing of tradition. The kungfu plot revolves around preserving the secret 64 moves and avenging the old master's death, usual tropes in this type of film.

    But he sets all this up in order to break it, that's what Ip Man's talk about breaking the cake represents in his standoff with the old master of the northern school, contrasted to his belief that it should be whole—metaphorically referring to a strong, unified China, the same obsession with fabricated harmony that powers both the political and martial arts narratives over there.

    This is what Kar Wai does, he breaks the harmonies.

    Not so much in the fights: Kar Wai plays with them like a master painter fools with paint in commissioned work. He plays with speeds, textures and choreographed impacts but does not radically push the language like he did in Ashes. Ashes really was a radical break in temporal experience, wonderful stuff with many layers. Here, we experience fights cleanly, in a way that will satisfy the broad audience.

    He breaks the heroic narrative: in his worldview, time does not linearly build to the 'big fight', it happens with one third of the film to go and Ip Man is not in it, what should have been a dramatic death happens offscreen, history is glimpsed off the streets, we get flashbacks and forwards, abstraction and long visual poetry. And the 64 moves are never passed on. All that fooling with structure is a way of loosening limits of genre and tradition, inherited limits to vision.

    But what is really worth it here, is watch him swim to meet his own limits—multilayered reflection on memory as living space for the eye.

    In martial arts terms, that means soft, yielding to inner pull, to the hardness of fights, politics and quasi-mythical narrative. It means every hard narrative thrust in the name of tradition, country or lineage, becomes an anchor he uses to submerge me in visual exploration of feelings. In visitation of spaces of desire, flows. Sure, it is not as successful as previous projects, because the fancy fights and exotic settings get in the way, jarring me from a tangible experience. But it's still pretty much the same wonderful swimming, each thrust of the hand creating turbulent patterns in water.

    For instance, the daughter waiting in the train station to avenge the old master is the anchor. But between that first shot and the decisive encounter, we get a wonderful current of images; cooking smoke at night, snow, refracted light through windows, children running. These are not of the story, but snow flakes of remembrance the air drags in. The cut from statues of Buddha to grainy footage of bustling Hong Kong is one of the most thunderous edits I've seen. And the entire last third of the film is purely a Kar Wai film; all about unrequited yearnings, ashes of youth in a gilded box.

    So spliced inside the kung fu comic-book is a sort of Mood for Love where again we had the contrast to 'hard' fabrication in the writer of kung fu stories.

    It is muddled, because you can't have crispness when the whole point is a fluid recall. Tarkovsky is 'muddled'. But it's so lovely overall.

    The coveted moves as the excuse for the man and woman to meet attempting touch, the Taoist pushing and yielding of hands to be close.

    They are empty hand forms, in that there is nothing to be grasped beyond the shared flow. It is all about cultivating sensitivity, listening, placement in space.

  2. I have been reading the reviews for this film before it opened. What I have noticed is that it has gone up in its rating by over 1.5 points in the IMDb rating scale since opening (from under a 5 to a 6.0)…. I noticed that most of the worst reviews were written and posted before it even opened? That got me wondering…. are these "reviewers" really reviewing this film or have they tried to cause a train wreck with it before it even came out? It looks to me that the vast majority of reviews since the film actually opened have been very high ratings.

    I thought the film was outstanding- just like the resent reviews.

    Does anyone else think something fishy is going on with the reviews of this film? Why would some folks want to squash this film? Maybe some journalists out there can take a look at that?

  3. Set in 1940s Fushan, Canton province, the martial arts community, lead by Gong Yutian from the north, is retiring and holds a challenge to select an heir to bring southern martial arts to the north. The southern community elects Ip Man, the shining newcomer, up for the challenge. Ip Man develops a friendship with Gong’s daughter, Gong Er. The story crosses two decades as Ip Man and Gong Er stand the tests of life. The Japanese Army invasion of Fushan forces Ip Man into poverty and he resettles in Hong Kong. A mutiny within the Gong family sets Gong Er on a quest for revenge. In a time where age-old tradition is being replaced with modernity, how much can one uphold their principles? Who will pass on their lineage? Who takes 14 years to make a movie? Wong Kar Wai is truly one-of-a-kind. He’s the only filmmaker who can take unlimited time with financial support (the backers who most likely will lose their investment) and a team that is willing to plunge to the depths with him. It shows in his work. Tony Leung’s Ip Man is portrayed akin to a normal gentleman. I’m the biggest Donnie Yen fan in the world and as good as he was playing a dramatized version of Ip Man, Tony Leung’s scholar-like image is closer to who Ip Man is in real life. On the kung fu side, Leung is not Donnie Yen but achieves the necessary physicality and fights more convincingly than the quick editing suggests. It makes me rethink how the actual Ip Man may have physically expressed himself, and I doubt he would have fought as aggressively as displayed in Donnie Yen’s version. This may be the best Zhang Ziyi role yet. She’s never been more likable in any other role I have ever seen her in than here. Gong Er is the film’s most relatable character, carries the most pathos and energizes the film by providing the audience someone to root for. When she fights, the stakes are high. There is a somewhat of a battle between fact and fiction within the film’s construct. It’s almost as if Gong Er, a fictitious character representing tradition, brings the traditional tropes of what one may expect from a martial arts film. While Ip Man, on the other hand, is married to historical fact and delivering the film’s message. The fights are filmed tightly, but for a reason. Wong Kar Wai is interested in the details of the movements: the little twists, nudges and arcs where one gathers power that are all specific to each style of Chinese martial arts. For people who are familiar with the basic concepts of Wing Chun, Baqua, Xingyi and Baijquan, it’s quite the rare visual treat as bigger movements usually bold better for on screen fight choreography. For those who are not familiar, fear not! There is a sequence where the film presents these different styles. The over-saturation of Ip Man films really has limited the creativity to presenting Wing Chun as a martial art. It’s safe to say most audiences know what Wing Chun looks like now. It sounds as though there are a lot of qualifiers for one to understand the film. The world of the film exists within the martial arts community of an older time, where people lived with their own set of rules and traditions. Wong Kar Wai is very interested in presenting these traditions, and similar to how he’s filming the action, it’s like he’s trying to keep a record of it. Characters speak in idioms with multiple subtext underneath (as martial artists do). That’s a noble effort, but it may prove difficult for English speaking audiences. A detail I noticed between the early promotional posters to the actual movie poster was that the early ones listed the film’s title as The Grandmasters and the actual movie poster’s title is named The Grandmaster. It makes me speculate that there probably was a story decision amongst the creative team whether the story should be solely focus on Ip Man or whether it should be about all three of the masters together. That was precisely what the narrative needed to decide on. Whether if I’m right or not, this is a case of a film that clearly has shot too much footage and was forced to be cut down upon its due date. The first cut was reportedly 4 hours and this really came apparent to me upon reflecting about the film. There seems to be a lot lost on the editing floor and unwillingly creates gaps in the narrative. There is much to love about The Grandmaster. It is not a martial arts movie in the traditional sense in where its conflicts are solved by fighting. No, this is a story about legacy. It’s about the deeply embedded Chinese Confucian value of improving the quality of life for future generations by passing on our culture and heritage responsibly. Every character in the film is driven by this single motivation and each take it to different places. To quote a line from the film, (I’m paraphrasing) “A martial artist’s biggest enemy is life itself.” Ip Man is a grandmaster not because of his physical prowess, but because he stood up to life (which was quite tragic) and kept to his grand vision of spreading Wing Chun. I really love the fact that someone made a film about this. That’s what ultimately won me over about The Grandmaster. It had a lot of heart, in how the film was made, it’s microscopic attention to detail and in it’s message. It maybe esoteric, and even downright alienating to some viewers, but the rewards are worth the effort!

  4. "Don't tell me how good your skills are, how brilliant your master is and how profound your school is. Kung fu – two words – one horizontal, one vertical. If you're wrong, you'll be left lying down. If you're right, you're left standing. And only the ones who are standing have the right to talk."

    For all intents and purposes, the film began as a biopic of one man – to be more specific, Ip Man, the influential kung-fu master who was instrumental in spreading the Wing Chun style around the world and who was perhaps better known for being Bruce Lee's master. But in the midst of exploring Ip Man's life, Wong must have been suddenly struck by the thought – What exactly makes Ip Man so special? Or even better, why should a movie set in the golden age of martial arts be solely about one grandmaster?

    And so, despite Leung's omniscient voice-over, 'The Grandmaster' is in fact not about Ip Man alone. Be warned therefore, if you are expecting a movie focused on Ip Man, because you're likely to be sorely disappointed – as Tony Leung reportedly is – that you're likely to know more about the Man from the Donnie Yen films.

    Indeed, the narrative is the film's biggest handicap, though to be fair, it only becomes apparent later on. The first half-hour begins strongly with a rightful focus on Ip, and key highlights include his initiation into martial arts by his master Chen Heshun (Yuen Woo-Ping) and his loving marriage to Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye-kyo). Ip's first challenge would come with the arrival of Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), a venerable kung fu master from northeastern China looking to consolidate his power in the southeast even as he retires.

    After Ip goes on to win the battle of minds with Gong, the latter's daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) stands up to challenge Ip yet again in a bid to restore her family's reputation. That duel also marks a turning point for the movie, which shifts away from Ip and explores the vendetta that ensues between Gong Er and her father's power-hungry protégé Ma San (Zhang Jin) against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of China.

    Against the better advice of her elders, she forsakes her betrothal to avenge the death of her father at Ma San's hands, which culminates in a thrilling battle set at an old railway station in Hong Kong one New Year's Eve. Where is Ip Man's involvement in all this? Admittedly there is little.

    Though Wong does bring Ip back into the picture towards the end of the film, his audience is likely to have grown too emotionally detached from the character. A scene towards the end that portrays supposedly the last time Ip met Gong Er is infused with the director's signature sense of longing and regret as the latter reveals her feelings for the former, but how that bears relevance to what Wong is trying to say about Ip or Gong Er's tumultuous lives is too obscure.

    In fact, throughout the film, Wong offers little insight into the person of Ip Man. What might have been a meaningful portrait of his relationship with Yongcheng is lost when the latter is practically forgotten in the second half of the movie. We learn little too of Ip's relocation to Hong Kong, and how he built up his reputable school for Wing Chun. All things considered, a more coherent portrait of Gong Er actually emerges from the movie.

    Rather than regard it as a Ip Man biopic therefore you'll be better off seeing it as Wong's philosophical musings on martial artists. Fans of the auteur will recognise these familiar themes from his previous works, but Wong's treatment is still unparalleled in conveying regret, longing, and unspoken desires – whether is it Ip Man and Gong Er's mutual affection for each other, or Gong Er's lament for a life less fully lived.

    Le Sourd's visuals are also particularly ravishing in the action sequences, designed with much imagination and flair by veteran choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping. The opening sequence that sees Ip Man take on a whole gang of men along a rain-soaked street is filmed with utmost clarity on the beauty and precision of the moves, with the subsequent duels between Ip Man and Gong Yutian as well as Gong Er equally breathtaking to behold.

    Keenly aware of the actors' limitations, Yuen goes for elegance over spectacle. Nonetheless, both Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi also perform impressively given their lack of a martial arts background, the months of training to get them prepared physically for their respective roles paying off in the grace and confidence by which they execute their moves.

    Nonetheless, Zhang easily trounces Leung in the film's dramatic scenes, the former's combination of grit and vulnerability making Gong Er a more compelling figure than Ip Man. The fault of course isn't Leung's alone, as his usual penchant for nuance and understatement unfortunately working against his portrayal in a narrative that pretty much relegates his character's account as a marker of the passage of time.

    Of course, narrative was never a strong suite in Wong's films, which typically were mood pieces boosted by his signature artistic flourishes. These trademarks are still very much alive in 'The Grandmaster', which is easily one of the most beautiful kung fu movies ever made. But plot plays a much more important role here than in Wong's other films, since it is ultimately through Ip Man's experiences in life that we come to understand his deeper introspections. This is where Wong's film stumbles, relegating Ip Man to a sideshow instead of placing him front and centre – and given all that hype and expectation of Wong's Ip Man biopic, the cut we see here can only be regarded as a disappointment.

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