Wong Kar Wai kicked off the 63rd Berlinale today in style with the international premiere of his much anticipated kung-fu period drama “The Grandmaster,” which was promptly picked up by the Weinstein Company. Based on the life of Ip Man, master of the Wing Chun kung-fu style and teacher of Bruce Lee, the film begins in the southern Chinese city of Foshun in 1936, when Ip (played with quiet dignity by Tony Leung) is 40 and living happily off of family wealth and with his own young family; it ends some 20 years later in Hong Kong, when things are very different, for both China and Ip.
In a somewhat meandering fashion, the plot follows the retirement of the great master from the north, Gong Baosen, who challenges the southerners to one last fight. Ip is the man chosen, but instead of a physical fight, Gong decides to wage a battle of wits. The outcome leads to a revenge battle between Ip and Gong’s daughter Er (the exquisite Zhang Ziyi), the lips of whom – in what is surely a first in kung-fu cinema – come dangerously close to her adversary’s while somersaulting through the air. The heat from that brief moment, unnoticeable until slowed nearly to a stop, warms the rest of the film, otherwise driven by cold, dark forces.
One of those is the occupying Japanese army, the other is a traitor to the Gongs, Ma San (Zhang Jin). Refusing to collaborate with the former, Ip Man loses almost everything he had. Gong Er, meanwhile, cannot give up the personal battle to restore her father’s honor, and forfeits her future. Shot by French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd in a melange of varied speeds, muted colors, weathered textures and pure, unadulterated fantasy, the fight scenes play as if viewed through a highly sophisticated power kaleidoscope. But in the end, if the countless (and rather overdone) fight scenes are the reason for “The Grandmaster”’s commercial existence–these utterly unguilty pleasures–the film is in fact about the foundation provided by kung fu: honor, a way of life.
Despite a structure that confuses at times, a subplot that adds little beyond a scintillating fight, and a running time (130 mins) that could be trimmed, it’s a combination hard to beat commercially, which is no doubt why the film has already proved so successful in China, and why Harvey Weinstein is willing to make business again with Wong’s executive producer Megan Ellison, with whom Weinstein has had issues. (No word yet on whether their lips brushed in any of their fights.)
In a jovial afternoon press conference, Wong said that he had first become interested in the story in the late 90s when he saw the last interview with Ip Man, who despite his skills and accomplishments, remained a humble man who believed kung fu was for the people, and not just the few.
Asked by a journalist how he managed to get good work out of actors and crew, when the Chinese tended to be so respectful of authority figures, Wong suggested with a laugh that she didn’t know Chinese film crews. Leung, noting the annoyance of never being certain about your character –Wong gives only the next day’s script to actors — said that “The Grandmaster” was for him the most enjoyable of Wong’s films. “Not to say that I didn’t enjoy the others,” he added quickly. Everyone laughed.
When it came her turn, looking as astonishing in a sleek black dress as she did destroying men on screen, Zhang simply said that she must be the luckiest actress in the world. No one was in the mood to argue.