Some reviews need more context than others: the very idea of
a kung fu movie, even an artistically made one, makes me want to scream with
boredom, yet I was enthralled by The
Grandmaster. Wong Kar Wai’s film is technically about a real-life hero
named Ip Man, one of China’s great martial arts masters. But as you experience
it, the film is poetic, operatic and historically sweeping, as lush and seductive
as any of Wong’s previous, more conspicuously ambitious works, including In the Mood.
The Grandmaster is
not some obscure immersion in visual poetry, either. Its slender but lucid
narrative makes the film epic in feel although not in length (since it was
shown at Cannes, it has been pared down to a swift 1 hour and 48 minutes). In
1936, Ip Man (Wong’s frequent, always charismatic star, Tony Leung) is a kung
fu master from the South of China, chosen to take on the aging master of the North.
As they maneuver, the competition between North and South in martial arts styles
sounds like a civil war, foreshadowing the real war ahead.
Soon, the married Ip Man meets a woman who might be his perfect
match: the Northern master’s daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), herself gifted at
martial arts. Eventually the story zooms ahead to the Japanese invasion of
China, which shatters many of the characters’ lives, and on to 1950’s Hong Kong.
This is probably the point at which some variation of that hokey
Moby Dick analogy might come to mind:
“This is about kung fu the way Moby
Dick is about a whale,” but that has always been an idiotic cliche. Moby
Dick, in fact, is a lot about a whale, whole
chapters of it, even though it’s so much more, and The Grandmaster has plenty of martial arts scenes. But they are beautifully
choreographed, more balletic than thumping-action, set to graceful music.
Two set pieces take place in the shadowy yet colorful brothel
called, for good reason, The Gold Pavilion, where women have bright red lips, and
men have hands and feet whose martial-arts moves are impossibly fast. (The way
the frames speed up and slow down almost imperceptibly is a ballet all its
own.) Another major battle takes place next to train tracks against a dramatically
bare, snowy landscape. Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography sweeps you into the
film’s world, whether we’re looking at period vistas or Leung’s amazingly
powerful face, full of restrained emotion.
I’ve read that Wong took great pains to make sure the kung
fu action, in many different styles, was
authentic, and … well, fine, I’ll leave that to people who care. For the rest
of us: don’t think of The Grandmaster as a kung fu movie. Think
of it as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
meets The Last Emperor. Even better, just
think of it as a major work from a master filmmaker.