Wong Kar Wai’s latest delivers upon many expectations and even exceeds them. The film is suffused with his characteristic sense of patience and longing, is composed poetically with attention to moments, and is visually centric. The Grandmaster may just contain some of the most elegant and beautiful imagery of his entire career, despite the fact that longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle was absent from this project. Wong Kar Wai’s vision remains intact and it is compelling to see that the result of a new collaboration, with Philippe Le Sourd, can be as sinuous.
As is abundantly known, The Grandmaster is about Ip Man (Tony Leung), the man who is credited with expanding the reach and accessibility of the highly concise martial at form Wing Chun. The film spans from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, during which China experiences a great social and political tumult. Ip Man enjoys a peaceful and entitled life in 1930’s Foshan, at a time when the martial arts were more readily enjoyed by the wealthy. At this time the grandmaster of Northern China, Gong Yutian, seeks an heir for his family. Ip Man, selected as representative of the South, “defeats” Gong Yutian, only to meet up with his daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) who challenges him to regain her family’s honor. War intervenes and wreaks havoc on Ip Man, his family, and the country as a whole. Ip Man then moves to Hong Kong. Gong Er’s path of vengeance against a man named Ma San has her cross paths with Ip Man once again. And honor again must be taken back.
The flow of the film is poised. It shares a quality of movement and aesthetics with the recent Anna Karenina, which is compliment indeed. Unfortunately though, it seems ultimately at odds with its desire to be both chronological and non-linear. This is the major contention between the American cut and the Chinese cut. The versions are radically different, although I, like many, have only the American version to assess. The goal of the director, persuaded by the Weinstein Company (thanks a lot guys), was to make a film that would be more readily intelligible by a non-Chinese audience. Things like name-titles appear on screen for many characters, voice over narration is included, written historical intertitles are used sometimes in place of physical scenes, and an attempt to structure the narrative in a more linear fashion is used. I learned all of this after having seen the film, but even while watching I felt that small connective tissues were missing, and that I wasn’t being given due credit as a more intuitive filmgoer. Wong Kar Wai is such a “showing” filmmaker that it seemed slightly odd to find him being such a “telling” filmmaker this go around. For that reason, it causes the film to drag in parts, and actually muddles the distinctions of place and character that a more generous edit could clarify.
I don’t want to dissuade anyone with this information. Wong Kar Wai has fashioned an immaculate, highly physical, and fluid picture with deep emotional tones. It is stunning to watch, and is easily the most beautiful martial arts film that I have ever seen. The cinematography is so attuned the most minute gestures of each martial art form on display, it is as if the camera is part of the movements, a partner in dance. This is where the film succeeds most – the physical elegance of how its fight sequences are filmed so that the viewer may exist impossibly within them. Wong Kar Wai’s balance of philosophy and physicality, emotion concealed and emotion revealed is the other great success of the film.
The Grandmaster is now playing at Ritz Theaters.