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August 08, 2013

The Grandmaster

grandmaster 1.jpg

Yi dai zong shi
Wong Kar-wai - 2013
Mei Ah Entertainment Region 0 DVD

It wasn't so much that I was impatient to see Wong Kar-wai's newest film, as much I only want to see the most complete versions of his films. That The Grandmaster has been shortened for a North American audience is indicative of a misunderstanding regarding both the film, and the audience that appreciates Wong's work. Sure, there are several fight scenes, beautifully choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, and that should come as no surprise to anyone fleetingly familiar with that name. But above all, this is Wong's movie, and martial arts takes a back seat to meditations on the more abstract ideals of love and honor.

It would have been arch to title this film, "In the Mood for Kung-Fu", but like Wong's most acclaimed film, he revisits the themes of unrealized love and nostalgia for an idealized past. The Grandmaster is less a biographical film about Ip Man, as much as it is also about the violent history of China in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and Ip's relationships with several other martial arts masters. One of the most important relationships is with Gong Er, the daughter of a nationally recognized master. Ip's story is in part set aside for Gong Er's quest to preserve her father's legacy, especially when a top disciple takes a post on behalf of Japan during World War II.

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Lest I take too much for granted here, Ip Man known remembered primarily for being the one to teach a young Bruce Lee martial arts, as well as introducing the Wing Chun school of fighting to Hong Kong. Ip has also been the subject of a series of films by Wilson Yip and Herman Yau, more traditionally narrative and biographical, although all of the films are fictionalized to various degrees. It should be noted that Ip's son, Ip Chun served as a consultant here as he has done on other films about his father.

As far as the fighting goes, there are close-ups of that well positioned fist, or the fabric torn out by a knife. There are also the feet in kung-fu slippers, sliding in the snow, the coil of burning incense, and the rain drops bouncing from Ip Man's white hat. The Grandmaster is often exquisitely, even breathtakingly filmed. Frequently, the dominant colors are burnished brown, black, white and a hazy grayish blue. Tony Leung might be nominally be the star, but it's Zhang Ziyi who is lovingly photographed here. In extreme close-ups, the stories are told between Leung's eyes which seem to only know sadness, and Zhang's beautifully curved lips.

Wong Kar-wai may look the part of the hipster with his ever present sunglasses, but his films are about looking at the past. In one of the voiceovers, Gong Er frames her addiction to opium as bringing her back to a time when she was happiest. It's one of several moments that recalls the policeman in the first part of Chunking Express wondering if love has an expiration date. On a greater scale, what Wong is looking at here is how people survive and adapt with great historical shifts, whether it's a former royal executioner who becomes the bodyguard to a martial arts master's daughter, or an older man from southern China who literally fights his way to establish his school in Hong Kong.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 8, 2013 08:25 AM