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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?

Kicking off in the early 1930s and spanning two decades of events, "The Grandmaster" is not invested in the visceral rush of clashing opponents or elaborate training sessions. Instead, Wong emphasizes sacred traditions pitted against the march of time. When the Japanese occupation brings a faster end to Gong's career than anyone around him expected, his daughter launches on a warpath against defected Gong disciple Ma Shan (Zhang Jin), while Ip Man's own ambitions are buried in a hail of wartime tragedies. The excitement of combat expectations gives way to a melancholic second act.

Even as the plot of "The Grandmaster" gets droopy, it never loses the polished look. Working with a new director of photography (French cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd), Wong's attentiveness to color palettes and shifting frame rates are more erratic than those found in his collaborations with Christopher Doyle, but they're always gorgeous displays often caked in yellows or browns that solidify the ancient quality of the proceedings.

Repeatedly capturing Wing Chung disciples gathered together before freezing them into a still image, Wong provides constant reminders of the history at work. The effect is alternately involving and remote as the story zigzags along. The intense chatter about family honor tends to have a listless quality, but Wong's implementation of fight choreography stands apart from any easy comparison. A steady stream of close-ups with rapid cuts of bodies invariably slowed down and sped up, the combat in "The Grandmaster" maintains a heavily aesthetisized feel without defying physics a la "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Everything impressive about is grounded in actual technique.

Wong can never match that inspired aspect of his direction with an equally commanding story, although there's some emotional potency to the plight of Gong as she does her father's legacy proud, reaching a greater heroic dimension than Ip Man himself. But the filmmaker does nothing to counteracts a dryness to the process of getting to that point, and his pensiveness only truly gels for the way it draws attention to the movie's defiance of clichés. The stage is set early on for a showdown that's interrupted by the harsher chaos of greater historical events, proving that the destructive forces of war pack a much bigger wallop than any combination of punching and kicks.

Unsurprisingly, Wong gets this idea across through a delicately constructed tone rendered with an effortless quality on par with the skilled fighters at the movie's center. "Don't worry about your style," Ip Man says, a statement that applies to Wong as well. Even with this shift of content, the form remains a visual marvel.

Criticwire grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already a major blockbuster in China, "The Grandmaster" opens the Berlin International Film Festival without a North American distributor. It has limited appeal in the United States but should find a home with a midsize distributor experienced with martial arts and arthouse releases able to help the movie find its niche market. It won't replicate its success back home, but "The Grandmaster" is certain to reach audiences already eager to see it.

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