Perhaps the best place to begin a review of Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster” is at the end — or a few minutes after. An epilogue of sorts, which happens suddenly and far enough into the credits that maybe half the audience was watching it from the stairs, serves as a pretty representative microcosm of everything that is right about the film, and everything that is not. In it, we are first treated to a dazzling sequence of impressionistic fight footage, with close-ups of flailing fists and whipping sleeves contrasted with rivets working themselves loose from beams in slow motion, abstract edges and slippered feet sliding to a dusty stop — too fast to make much sense, but good. Then we get a close up of Tony Leung’s Ip Man slowly raising the brim of his trademark white straw hat and delivering directly to the camera with an uncharacteristic smirk “What’s your style?” in 100% cornball Rimmel-commercial style. Not good. And it finishes off with a titled quote, about how the philosophy of martial arts bears on life, this time from Ip Man's most famous student Bruce Lee, who, to be clear, figures nowhere else in this narrative, except potentially in the form of an unnamed boy who turns up at the very end: not good, not bad, just out of place. It would be easy to overlook all this as 'just an epilogue' into which a bunch of stuff was randomly thrown together that didn’t quite fit, if that criticism did not also apply to the rest of the film. Considering Wong’s work at its best is an exercise in sustained mood and tone, his inability to maintain it here is among the film’s chief disappointments.
It’s clear there is an attempt being made at a sprawling epic, a film that spans decades and sees invasion and civil war tear apart old hierarchies, through all of which our characters draw strength from their dedication to the ancient spiritual art of kung-fu. And certainly the setting is one that lends itself to a grand sweep. China before the war is rendered almost as that kind of feudal netherworld that we are familiar with from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or "Hero" or ‘House Of The Flying Daggers” — all ornate interiors, ritualised codes of honor and embroidered silks: it feels more ancient than 20th Century. Then the war comes and changes the palette to a more sombre one, but the costuming and set design are no less rich and fetishizable. And the north/south divide, along with the divisions between the various practises within kung-fu (of which Ip Man’s Wing Chun is only one) does make for some compelling background, so the first third of the film runs kind of like an extended, exquisitely-shot training montage. And we are okay with that.
But background is never the problem here, the film’s major flaws are front-and-center: characterization and story. Ip Man, whether delivering opaque symbolism in the dialogue or overexplaining in voiceover, makes a frustratingly blank, unknowable protagonist — why and how did he, as he tells us, “lose” his family? What is the significance of the button? Did his status as the new Master simply evaporate? And for long periods of time he is absent, not just from the screen but altogether from the narrative, as we instead follow the revenge plot of Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), or, even more tangentially, the escapades of a spy-turned-kung-fu master called The Razor (Chang Chen). And even here, we jump around in time, with a sudden, unprecedented ten-year flashback revealing a climactic fight. And it’s interesting to note, that particular set-piece (Gong Er fighting her father’s protégé/killer as the World’s Longest Train whistles past), was a definite highlight, but it doesn’t have Ip Man’s involvement at all.
In fact, the best parts of the film, the most emotionally satisfying and also some of the most beautiful, come courtesy of Gong Er, and the wonderful performance Zhang turns in. Her character is actually given the sort of tragic arc that Wong’s sensibilties seem to gravitate towards, and Zhang’s natural, effortless grace lend a real elegance to the fights. In fact we’d say that at times, with her, the film does attain those heights of the “Wong Kar Wai Untitled Martial Arts Movie” we all made in our heads. She is simply lovely to watch, and imbues every scene she’s in, no matter who she’s playing against, with an undercurrent of longing, an ocean of repressed emotion, that somehow rearranges the other elements of the film so they fall into orbit around her. She also seems to get the best deal dialogue-wise — even delivering a few zingers which are kind of refreshing where elsewhere it can feel like all the dialogue comes via frustratingly metaphorical haiku. And we have to mention that nearly-kiss that happens as she and Ip Man have their one fight: it’s a glorious moment, as Wong must have realised, since he reprises it later in the film. Trouble is, these moments of transcendence pass, and leave you badly, badly jonesing for more.
So if arthouse Wong fans will find little to really sink their teeth into here, what of the fight aficionados? Sorry to say, we fear they will be often let down, too. From the opening set piece in which Wong’s camera is more interested in the rain than the chop-socky, to the anti-action talkiness of many of the later conflicts, the visceral thrills don’t come as thick and fast as we’d like. So while there are some great fights, in which the flurry of little details does add up to a coherent whole in which perhaps Wong does expand the vocabulary of the classic fight scene some, more often that experimentation comes at the cost of clarity. The scenes involving Ip Man himself tend to be darkly lit and cut with such ferocious speed and jumbled geography that you don’t know where you are until it’s all-too-quickly over. On occasion, we weren’t even entirely sure who had won, until a grimacing face was shown or a cryptic, impenetrable parting shot delivered. Sometimes Wong even allows himself to get a little goofy — like when he crash zooms closer to a spectator’s overreaction in a direct nod to the schlocky martial arts movies he watched growing up; it’s fun, but again, out of step with everything else.
Oh how we wish we had better things to say! The film had a long and arduous journey to the screen and represents years of kung-fu training on the part of the actors, and research and dedication by a director we admire a great deal. But our high hopes can’t obscure the fact that this is muddled storytelling that skitters over the surface of mysteries and psychologies that we want to plunge into and explore. All of Zhang Ziyi’s considerable powers can’t compensate for our lack of emotional investment in Ip Man himself, and all of Wong's undeniable visual flair can't conceal the haphazard nature of the story. Perhaps most damningly, though, if we consider how the mellifluous chords of “In the Mood for Love” (for example), resonated with us for maybe weeks afterward, in the few short hours that we’ve lived with “The Grandmaster,” we’ve already begun to forget it. [B-]