The Grandmaster is the fifth feature-film retelling of the tale of Ip Man, a legendary Chinese Wing Chun master who practiced around World War II (and critically, within the culture of a certain kind of Chinese nationalism), famously promoted Southern Chinese martial arts styles, and, most importantly for fans of the genre, trained Bruce Lee. Previous Ip Man films have focused on the actual and embellished details of the legend: Ip Man focused on his adherence to a “pure” training of Wing Chun and his strong Chinese nationalism; Ip Man 2, on his legacy in Hong Kong; The Legend Is Born, on his youth, early training, and the racial discrimination that fueled his practice. While in many ways these versions are formulaic and adhere to a certain genre storyline, they remain fresh, as the legend is re-created and embellished.
That Wong Kar Wai chose to re-tell this story was interesting to me; while he has certainly made his share of “action” films, especially in the beginning of his feature film career (Chungking Express, Fallen Angels), he is better known for his gorgeous, detailed, character and mood studies (Happy Together, 2046) and has certainly not made a feature-length film which could be said to skirt the genre of martial arts film. He is, however, a filmmaker from Hong Kong, well versed in his colleagues’ work and in the genre, so this venture is not entirely surprising.
The Grandmaster is not the best of the Ip Man films, nor is it even the best Wong Kar Wai film (with apologies to Manohla Dargis, who liked it a great deal). But it is an interesting study in the disruption of genre (martial arts film) by a certain auteur style (Wong Kar Wai’s). In The Grandmaster it seems that Mr. Wong honors the conventions of the genre, but the film is at its strongest when it leaves that genre’s narrative and cinematographic conventions. A certain style can’t help but reveal itself in moments, some of those being the best in the film.
Gong Yutian’s funeral procession is my favorite scene and a great example of Mr. Wong’s style. Gong Er (his daughter) and her tribe walk in a funeral procession through the Northern snows. She wears white against the whiteness of the snow, white funereal flags whirl crazily in the wind, and their solemn march underscores a great loss. Shigeru Umebayashi’s moving score moves us. Henchmen from Ma San (Gong Yutian’s killer and pretender to the martial arts throne) try to stop the mourners from re-claiming his rightful homestead. In a typical martial arts film this would have been a place for a big and rousing group battle. Here, however, in a brief but powerful sequence, Gong Er stops them gently and decisively; we get more a mood than a fight – a flag unfurling, a staff sliced in half, Gong Er’s controlled face.
The fantastic costume design by William Chang, a frequent collaborator, hearkens to previous Wong films. In the other Ip Man films, the costumes were beautiful and period-accurate, with some embellishments to distinguish the heroes from the villains, but not memorable. In The Grandmaster, however, the costumes take on a life of their own, functioning as emotional landscapes. One beautifully shot (and properly correct) fight scene has Gong Er fighting in her fur coat and evening clothes. In a genre fight scene, she would have thrown off the fur and upended her coiffure. But no: she is so contemptuous of Ma San and so certain of her skill (a deadly technique called 64 Hands), that she doesn’t even bother to take off her cloak. As a result, the fighting takes on a beautiful, strange, multidimensional quality. In addition to the movement of her furs as she executes the perfect moves, there is the snow falling, the train speeding toward the left, her enemy twirling toward the right, and her hair staying miraculously in place. There are more directions than one can count, fresh textures, novel sounds as her lovely shoes scrape the snow (the snow also takes on another gorgeous dimension in this scene). I was more captivated with the movement of the clothes rather than the body – which is not to say that it was poorly choreographed, quite the contrary – because Gong Er’s character (and depth of feeling) revealed itself in both her movement and her costume. In this scene, we fully understand her determination to uphold her father’s honor, and just as important, we are treated to a lush début of the legendary 64 Hands, executed so precisely that it leaves no marks on her person.
What’s also remarkable is that it is the women who form the core character (and I would also dare suggest, the moral core) of the film. Even as spectators they are active and aware of their menfolk’s weaknesses. There is a lovely feeling quite similar to 2046 and In the Mood for Love in a few key scenes with the women: Gong Er, sitting in the midst of a brothel of women, impeccable in their cheongsams and just as game for a fight; Gong Er, who gives up a desirable marriage in order to uphold her father/family’s reputation; and, the quick and elegant Sister San, who fights Ip Man with her tiny feet bound. Mr. Wong circumscribes the fleeting, color-rich, texture-heavy mood so reminiscent of In the Mood for Love, while elevating the women beyond ornamentation.
In many ways this film defies/disappoints the martial arts genre: the opening fight scene in the rain is murky and uninteresting, there is no overt Chinese nationalism, and even the big fight scenes are rather short. But where Mr. Wong applies his style to re-interpret the genre in the only way he can, the results are fresh and astonishing.
With Tony Leung and the ever-elegant Ziyi Zhang, who blur the line between love and hate.
Nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Costume design at the 86th Academy Awards.
The Grandmaster (Yi Dai Zong Shi), dir. Wong Kar Wai, 2013. 130 min. Block 2 Pictures, et al. In Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese.
Related: “Below the Line: Shooting The Grandmaster,” by Mekado Murphy, The New York Times