The Grandmaster (一代宗师)

the grandmasterWong Kar Wai seems inaccessible and self-indulgent to observers who have never liked his films. But motion picture is subjective experience; if you have grown to admire him as a stylist of art house cinema, The Grandmaster will resonate with you.

Themes that permeate earlier works Ashes of Time, Days of Being Wild, Happy Together, 2046) continue in this film — against the force of changing times; characters loiter in nostalgia, beholdened by insatiable longing for the past.

Only differences here are: recurring themes exist in new historical context, and it moves one step beyond stock sentimentalism. In war torn era, martial arts rivals live and die by codes of honor and some yearn to carve out a piece of legacy that lasts.

By virtue of choreographer Yuen Woo Ping, flashes of stylized fight sequences (in the vein of The Matrix) pervade in this film, thereby satisfying two sets of audiences — those in want of kungfu action and those in search of poetic romanticism. But the latter may benefit more because The Grandmaster strays from traditional narrative. So suspend prior knowledge of all action and kungfu films, or biopics starring Donnie Yen before watching — consider this an acid trip into untold dimensions of Yip Man’s private reality.

Time and place is 1900s in the roaring city of Foshan, Southern China.

It begins in a flashback recounted by older Yip; a boy is being initiated by martial arts teacher, Chan Wah Shun. Painted in copper hues of browns, reds and swirling smokes; young Yip braces himself for the belt fastened tightly around his gut. It follows that this one knot implies a lifetime that will be led and bound by strings. Fast forward to spring in the early 1930s. At the age of forty, Yip Man (played by Bogart of Asia, Tony Leung Chiu Wai) lives a cozy life with generous inheritance.

We are also introduced to elders and fellow practioners who gather at luxurious brothel, The Golden Pavilion. In the company of painted faces and frivolous vice; men trade weary talk about pugilist philosophies, they ruminate on wars between countries and clans.

To mark his retirement from the martial arts scene; Northern master Gong Yu Tien (Wang Qingxiang) invites Mr Yip (from the South) to a high profile duel, thus setting in motion Yip’s involvement with leading lady Gong Er (played by Zhang Ziyi and inspired by female legend, Shi Jianqiao) spanning twenty years.

Mr Yip defeats the grandmaster and later; in an attempt to recover her father’s reputation, Gong Er challenges him to another contest. She wins — yet what begins as a duel prompted by pride and defiance alludes to the ambush of complex emotions simmering beneath. There is no withholding on mind meld and sexual tension as both spar by trading blows — fleeting moments are magnified and frozen in time. But this is bad timing for affairs of the heart and they part, content with epistolary friendship as the seasons pass.

In the late 1930s during winter, Mr Yip’s promise to visit Gong Er with his family is thwarted by Japanese invasion. As the thick of this film unfolds for both protagonists, we are led down separate narrative paths. Gong Er pursues vengeance against the man who kills her father; while Mr Yip departs for Hong Kong, hoping to earn his keep teaching martial arts.

We witness the years that chronicle their transformation; this journey ends with the passing of Gong Er and eventually, Mr Yip in 1972.

The Grandmaster is classic Wong Kar Wai with a twist: the pace is gentle, unhurried and the smallest details are being eroticized. While the fates of Gong Er and Yip Man culminate beautifully in portraits of solitary longing and regrets surrounding a bygone past; the same cannot be said of supporting character, The Razor (played by Chang Chen). A minor arc built upon this grandmaster of Wudang School’s martial arts (Fist of Ba Gua) works against the fluidity of this film as a complete, transcended whole.

Martial arts films about “Ip Man” are almost always full of glory and heroic victories, The Grandmaster deviates from such simplicity. In one of the richest scenes found in this film; a rearrangement of Ennio Morricone’s Deborah’s Theme (originally used in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America) conveys a major source of meaning. This stirring kaleidoscope of strife and romance creates characters shrouded in complexity, perhaps even flawed in some ways—restrained by the whims of historical change, alone against the shifting sands of hardship.

It has been said in biography, “The Man Only I Knew” that Bruce Lee spoke of him this way:

My instructor, Professor Yip Man, head of the wing chun school, would come up to me and say: ‘Let your mind, the basic reality, do the counter-movement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.’

If this were true; then Wong Kar Wai’s treatment of the protagonists’ lives brings a quality of secluded reticence. In the process he heightens their legacy with a hint of noble beauty.

★★★★

LANGUAGE IN CANTONESE & MANDARIN

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April 22, 2013
ETA: Since the time this review (based on original version screened in January) was published, Wong Kar Wai has produced a new cut for the Berlin International Film Fest in February 2013.

RELATED ARTICLE: WONG KAR WAI CUTS THE GRANDMASTER FURTHER FOR BERLIN

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