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by Eric Kohn
February 7, 2013 11:53 AM
8 Comments
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Berlin Review: Is Wong Kar Wai's 'The Grandmaster' Really a Martial Arts Movie?

"The Grandmaster."

In the years leading up to its completion, the prospects of a kung fu movie directed by Chinese art house auteur Wong Kar Wai have fascinated those familiar with his distinct blend of lush images and poetic encounters simply because "The Grandmaster" sounded so unlike him. However, the finished product remains satisfyingly in tune with the contemplative nature of the director's other work, only breaking his trance-like approach to drama for the occasional showcasing of martial arts techniques.

It's easy to see why audiences may expect something different. "The Grandmaster" purports to tell the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung) who eventually trained Bruce Lee. A humble Southern Chinese resident specializing in the kung fu subset known as Wing Chun, Ip Man carries the mantle for a retiring expert of the form, but "The Grandmaster" focuses less on Ip Man's abilities than the cultural weight they command. Intermittently action-packed and lethargic, the movie dances around formula. By delivering an expressionistic character study with bursts of intensity unlike anything else in his oeuvre and yet stylistically representative of its entirety, Wong practically has it both ways.

READ MORE: Berlin 2013: Wong Kar Wai, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi On Their 'Grandmaster'

The director has operated outside his safety zone before, most notably with the American road trip drama "My Blueberry Nights," where certain Western motifs never quite synched with Wong's overall vision. By contrast, "The Grandmaster" represents something of a rebound. Operating on a far bigger scale with heavier themes, Wong's ninth feature features a superior cohesion of artistry and ideas.

"The Grandmaster" represents something of a rebound for Wong Kar Wai.

Kicking off with a lavish introductory battle between Ip Man and several foe against a dark, rainy backdrop, "The Grandmaster" uses its opening sequence to establish the poetry of motion that defines the Wing Chun technique. But action leads directly into a contemplative mood; the year is 1936, a time of political upheaval in which the invasion of Japanese forces to the north endanger the country's current stability. Longtime Wing Chun master Gong Baosen (Wan Qingxiang) witnesses Ip Man's fight and instantly recognizes a potential heir just as he contemplates retirement. Visiting Southern China's Gold Pavilion in the city of Foshan for a commemoration of his accomplishments, Gong kicks off a tournament to formally determine his replacement.

The scene is technically set for a barrage of hand-to-hand combat, but instead Wong spends more time fleshing out the atmosphere. Ip Man's intermittent voiceover explains the discipline involved in Wing Chun along with the elaborate community surrounding it -- a tense group of male and female fighters who regularly gather in a posh brothel to discuss their skills. It's here that Ip Man encounters Gong's equally talented daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the only Wing Chun practitioner fully schooled in her dad's revered "64-hand" method. While the bonds between these surefooted fighters grow, so does the bigger tension of the pre-war backdrop, which eventually overwhelms everything else. That's when "The Grandmaster" gets really interesting. Rather than simply focus on the search for the new Wing Chung champion, it uses that rather small narrative to frame a broader historical one.

8 Comments

  • Jake D | June 4, 2013 5:09 AMReply

    Decent initial review. I especially appreciate Hojo-San, and Ernie's additional clarifications on the martial arts systems demonstrated. I also agree with Akira the film seems muddled in the editing. In addition, the character "Yong" in the early part of the film who fights Ip Man, in a practice bout after Madame San (the Bagua fighter with the bound feet), is portrayed by Lau Ga Yung, who is well know martial arts actor, action director, and has portrayed several different styles of martial arts in films. In "Grandmaster" in the short fight he uses Hung Gar, Northern Praying Mantis, and when you see him bend his interior fingers and extend his little and index fingers, he's using a Monkey Style. All the non martial arts actors (Tony Leung, Zhang ZiYi, and Chang Chen) trained for months to more fully embody their styles. One of the confusing things it seems to me that reviewers are having, is the 64 Palms as a version of Wing Chun or another style. In the subtitled version I saw, the martial systems are described in their Chinese names Wing Chun (Eternal Spring), Taijiquan (Supreme Ultimate Boxing), Hsing Yi (Form Mind), BaJi (open gate), except for BaGua Zhang, which gets translated as 64 Palms, (Ba Gua actually means 8 Trigrams, Zhang is palm)
    So the confusion is natural. It just seems inconsistent. The word on the street is that the original cut of the film was 4 hours long. That caused several plot connections to get mangled and fight scenes to be cut. I for one, hope for the Directors cut someday, to see Wong's original vision. I liked the film very much. I wish it was better.

  • Akira Hojo | April 6, 2013 2:11 AMReply

    The different styles showcased in the movie is also a narrative tool that represents the characters' minds and emotional states. Only Ip Man practiced Wing Chun in the movie; this review has several crucial mistakes. Wing Chun is a Southern Chinese martial art style, and after Ip Man won against several southern styles like Hung Gar, Preying mantis and Choy Lifut, he became the de facto representative to spread it in the North via Jingwu Athletic Association. The Northern and Southern styles rivalry mirrors the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, which was abruptly ended when the Japanese arrives. The theme of unification of China is a sub plot that directly ties to Yi Xiangtian's character as well as the Jingwu's mission to introduce Southern fist in the North. Many intricate sub-plots are missing or incomplete because the movie is poorly edited.

  • Akira Hojo | April 6, 2013 2:10 AMReply

    The different styles showcased in the movie is also a narrative tool that represents the characters' minds and emotional states. Only Ip Man practiced Wing Chun in the movie; this review has several crucial mistakes. Wing Chun is a Southern Chinese martial art style, and after Ip Man won against several southern styles like Hung Gar, Preying mantis and Choy Lifut, he became the de facto representative to spread it in the North via Jingwu Athletic Association. The Northern and Southern styles rivalry mirrors the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, which was abruptly ended when the Japanese arrives. The theme of unification of China is a sub plot that directly ties to Yi Xiangtian's character as well as the Jingwu's mission to introduce Southern fist in the North. Many intricate sub-plots are missing or incomplete because the movie is poorly edited.

  • Akira Hojo | April 6, 2013 2:00 AMReply

    The different styles showcased in the movie is also a narrative tool that represents the characters' minds and emotional states. Only Ip Man practiced Wing Chun in the movie; this review has several crucial mistakes. Wing Chun is a Southern Chinese martial art style, and after Ip Man won against several southern styles like Hung Gar, Preying mantis and Choy Lifut, he became the de facto representative to spread it in the North via Jingwu Athletic Association. The Northern and Southern styles rivalry mirrors the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, which was abruptly ended when the Japanese arrives. The theme of unification of China is a sub plot that directly ties to Yi Xiangtian's character as well as the Jingwu's mission to introduce Southern fist in the North. Many intricate sub-plots are missing or incomplete because the movie is poorly edited.

  • thresa | February 9, 2013 9:57 PMReply

    Great review I hope the movie succeeds.

  • rob | February 7, 2013 1:57 PMReply

    Interesting movie. Giving the high interest on martial arts as a physical activity, this fim reminds us of the spiritual component. Good review. Thanks

  • Ernie | February 7, 2013 1:15 PMReply

    The martial arts Gong Baosen practiced was Xingyi quan and Baguazhang, not Wing Chun. Wanted to clarify that for people interested in the martial arts aspect who don't know the different martial arts featured. There was Wing Chun, Bagua, Xingyi, Baji and Hung Gar. The opening scene had MMA and Sanshou fighter Cung Le. But didn't feel his style was much featured.

  • Bobby Valentino | February 9, 2013 6:27 AM

    Thanks for that, I think that really improved the review for a lot of people. You should write for a living