The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi) (Wong Kar-wai – Hong Kong/China) 130 minutes
Wong Kar-wai returns, six years on from the calamity that was his first American film My Blueberry Nights. That episode looked to have taken a lot out of him, both commercially and creatively. The fact it was a failure mattered less to many of his fans in the West than the suspicion it raised that maybe his films had actually been that flimsy all along, and that we never noticed because they were in a language few of us had even a rudimentary grasp of. Maybe Takeshi Kaneshiro’s flooded apartment and penchant for out-of-date tinned pineapple in Chungking Express or Lesley Cheung and Tony Leung’s decamping to Buenos Aires on a whim in Happy Together were just as twee and insubstantial as the gauche and self-conscious story at the heart of My Blueberry Nights. Wong wasn’t helped by casting two such insipid leads in that film as Norah Jones and Jude Law but he stands by it, saying it is a ‘very Chinese film’. His earlier Hong Kong films ultimately remain untainted by it but fans might have been forgiven for worrying as his newer projects got held up and he expended most of his energy on producing commercials and promotional films for luxury brands.
The Grandmaster is Wong’s first foray into the martial arts genre since 1994’s Ashes of Time, the film of his that is probably least remembered by most. It is a fictionalised biopic of the life of Ip Man, the pioneer of Wing Chun kung fu in Hong Kong, among whose students was Bruce Lee. Its delayed production means it enters a crowded field, with three other films based on Ip’s life having been produced in the past five years. One of those starred Hong Kong’s biggest current martial arts star Donnie Yen. Wong decides to entrust the role to his favourite leading man Tony Leung, and has other regulars such as Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen (reunited after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) alongside him. That gives his film a very particular "Wong-ian" cast, but the martial arts scenes are not any the less spectacular for that.
The film starts in Guangzhou in 1936, as Ip Man, already middle aged, battles against other southern Chinese kung fu masters for the right to be the southern heir designated by the northern master Gong Yutian. Ip wins the competition and then the challenge against Gong and he is now the counterpart to the northern heir "The Razor" Mo San (Chen). He is then challenged by Gong’s daughter, the fictional Gong Er (Zhang), who wants to restore the family honour and she defeats him by the slimmest of margins. Their fight is erotically charged but their love remains chaste and unspoken, bound as they are by convention as rivals, not to mention Ip’s married status.
The Japanese invasion plunges Ip’s well-off family into poverty and ultimately tragedy. Mo San turns collaborator with the Japanese and kills Gong Yutian; Gong Er swears revenge on Mo San against her dying wishes. This provides the bulk of the central part of the film, which then fast-forwards to 1950, after the end of the Occupation and the Civil War, by which time Ip Man, Gong Er and Mo San (the latter unbeknownst to the other two) have fled to Hong Kong.
The Grandmaster is not a film without its flaws – as often in Wong’s films, supporting characters are somewhat sketchily portrayed, and the slickness of Philippe Le Sourde’s Hollywood-inflected photography makes you pine for Wong’s usual cinematographer Christopher Doyle. The kung fu sequences are brilliantly mounted but there is an overweening insistence on highlighting every little textural detail, every raindrop splashing off Ip’s coat, every body crashing through a wooden wall. It’s splendidly rich, like fine Chinese lacquered wood, but Wong’s cinema, even at its most visually stunning, is more like a roughly-hewn stool. The visual palette is toned down when the Japanese invade – something that is announced with marvellous visual economy à la Hollywood of old, by the reflection of the Rising Sun flag in a dark puddle. From there on, the film is rougher and darker looking, yet it retains the imprint of a historical epic.
Though the subject matter might be a new departure for Wong Kar-wai, the thematic concerns are the same as ever. The Grandmaster is a film about love gone awry, love thwarted by impossible circumstances and time irretrievably lost. It is also a very moving meditation on art, creation and mortality. Gong Er, the mistress of "the sixty-four moves", gives up kung fu, reasoning that other traditions have also disappeared into thin air, so hers is no more of a loss. She succumbs to opium addiction, leaving Ip Man to pass his knowledge on (Ip, in reality, was also an opium addict, though Wong chooses to omit this). Perhaps it is an artistic fragility that has been foremost in Wong Kar-wai’s mind since his American misadventure. The sense of ephemerality at the core of The Grandmaster is one that haunts most artists, even more so the more successful they get. The film reads like a hopeful plea for permanence in the face of wasting change.