17:00 - 21st December 2014, by Calum Waddell

The Grandmaster

A new Wong Kar Wai film is frequently one of the most anticipated cinematic happenings of the year. As such, it is something of a surprise that The Grandmaster, which made its Chinese debut back in January 2013, has taken almost two years to reach British shores. Part of the reason for this might well be that the story of Ip Man, the iconic martial arts teacher whose students include Bruce Lee, has been somewhat exhausted. Indeed, the Donnie Yen-starring Ip Man (from 2008) led to its own 2010 sequel and a well received 2013 spin-off – Ip Man: The Final Fight (yet to be released in the UK). Meanwhile, Yen is gearing up for a proper Ip Man 3 – meaning that The Grandmaster arrives with a story which is a little too familiar. Yet, with this being Kar Wai’s first directorial effort since his failed American breakthrough My Blueberry Nights (from way back in 2007), one would be forgiven for hoping that a fresh approach to the character might be on offer…

Certainly, Kar Wai was not about to make his return with a movie that was, in effect, Ip Man with artier cinematography. Rather, this exploration is – oddly, enough – aesthetically and thematically more like the filmmaker’s previous 2046 (2004). Therein, however, is the biggest problem with The Grandmaster. As with the filmmaker’s last attempt at making martial arts epic, 1994’s ponderous but pretty Ashes of Time, the pace lags behind the subject matter.

Inevitably, though, everything looks outstanding here. Tony Leung, playing an especially solemn Ip Man, is his usual handsome self, but Kar Wai frequently shoots the actor in a darkened hue that suggests he is portraying the protagonist in a sublime rain-soaked Chinese noir. It is a captivating decision. His leading lady, Zhang Ziyi, who also headlined 2046, is the stuff of unrequited love – beautiful but mysterious, tough but delicate… She becomes untouchable whilst silently welcoming sexual attention. Ziyi’s character, Gong Er, represents a rival school of kung fu and Kar Wai does a fantastic job of depicting the romance and eroticism of her (on the surface) violent encounters with Leung. This factor might be considered dubious by some, but tone and presentation are everything and, in a quite mesmerising way, the director has crafted something of a first: wuxia as sex.

The most amazing thing about The Grandmaster, though, is actually its historic scope. Even Yen’s Ip Man never managed to capture period detail, and journey, like this. Leung’s progression expertly and fluidly unfolds, from proud fighter, to a father who loses two of his daughters to starvation during the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese conflict. The character’s voyage to Hong Kong, and a chance to prove himself all over again in the British colony, lends some political weight to the era – especially when Ziyi turns up as another exiled and bitter warrior from a mainland in turmoil. Having lost her father, Ziyi’s Gong Er undergoes an obviously transitional character arc – and it is to the performer’s credit that she evokes such tenderness and sympathy even when presented as something of a clothes horse for glamorous era-specific costumes.

Ultimately, The Grandmaster saves its finest set piece for its finale, with a beautifully captured battle in an underground train station. Here, a (CGI) locomotive becomes part of the conflict – whilst the location only adds to the aforementioned ‘noir’ feel of the film. However, with this said, by using so much slow-motion and tight, exaggerated close-ups, the unfolding chopsocky action threatens to become more representative of a music video than a widescreen document of violent wonder. This is a complaint that is also indicative of an opening face-off in which Leung overcomes a small street full of challengers. The director – accompanied and complimented by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (rather than his usual muse Christopher Doyle) – seems to be in love with relating the intricate details of dripping water and splashing puddles. As fascinating as this initially is, such technical grandiosity is undoubtedly at the expense of the hand-to-hand wonder essential to the Ip Man story.

So, in the end, The Grandmaster is outrageously ambitious. It is 130 minutes of kung-fu non-action – slow-mo martial arts that look beautiful but never quite register a solid right fist to the senses. Clearly still at the top of his game as a stylist, Wong Kar Wai could probably make a motion picture about David Cameron’s chins and it would still be drop-dead gorgeous (yes, really). Yet, in a career that stretches across four decades, we already know that this is a filmmaker who lavishes care on everything he points his camera lens at. Now, as he enters late-middle age (recently turning 56), and with his best work largely confined to the ‘90s, even the most dedicated of Kar Wai’s fanbase needs to ask themselves exactly who The Grandmaster is for. Kung-fu fans may well be perplexed, whilst the Sight and Sound mob will potentially dislike the generic necessities of the subject matter. Meanwhile, anyone hoping for a return to form – a new Chungking Express or Days of Being Wild, for instance – is undoubtedly going to be waiting for the director’s next project.

A noble failure, then, but an above average one all the same. The Grandmaster is indescribably odd – almost rebelling at its own need to be a martial arts movie. It kicks high but never quite hits a winning blow.

Wong Kar Wow? Not quite – but good enough to keep up our hope in the arthouse darling.
SCORE: 3/5
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