The Grandmaster, comes to our shore from China with Martin Scorsese's help and seal of approval. Usually we see Quentin Tarantino's name associated with martial-arts imports, so it came as a bit of a surprise that Scorsese's name was attached. Now that the film is complete, I see why the story attracted him so deeply. It's a tale that takes nearly a generation to tell of families, both adopted and blood, engaging in a feud fueled by hurt pride. Scorsese could take these fighters, turn them into street brawlers, work in some bits with the Catholic church, and immediately have his next project.
But this is Wong Kar-wai's film, not Scorsese's, and for all the beauty that Kar-wai brings to the fight sequences I don't feel as though he was the best choice to direct this story. Let me emphasize straight-ahead that this is an absolutely gorgeous film, and has the most mesmerizing fight sequences since the bathhouse brawl in Eastern Promises or the duel in the Go parlor in Hero. Those moments fit into Kar-wai's poetic sensibilities perfectly, and given the philosophical bent of the fighting instead of the raw physicality, they are an instant success.
The rest of the film is not as direct and veers on a wide trajectory with too many characters. This is coming to America billed as the story of Bruce Lee's trainer, not the story of Ip Man, and while this is a method to advertise the film here it's also an apt description for how distant the film feels. Kar-wai has three or four too many ponderous sequences of stuttered framing or slow motion over characters whose connections aren't always clear. This is an ambitious film, but it's not exactly successful.
The Grandmaster opens and closes with its best fight scenes. We watch as Yip Kai-man, better known as Ip Man (Tony Leung), wordlessly dispatches a dozen or so opponents in the rain. I've seen plenty of fight scenes in the water but they usually felt like a way of emphasizing the blows. Kar-wai lights the water heavily, so that each drop shows the fluid lines of motion as Ip works his way through the crowd. A punch speaks for itself, but the skill in motion is rarely highlighted this beautifully.
Almost immediately afterward we start running into the problems with the film. I mentioned the disconnect before, and part of that comes with the way that the movie tends to quickly touch on the events of Ip's life. These come and go so quickly that even major events, like the second war between China and Japan that would eventually spill into World War II, are glossed over, even with such wrenching details as the death of his daughters. They feel like they're going down a checklist so anyone somewhat familiar with Ip's history would get a sense that the creative team did their homework.
This checklist approach starts to make the film a bit muddled when the story branches off with the addition of a few other characters that almost equal Ip in total screen time. The focus is primarily on Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who challenges him in a delicate duel and could have been a romantic partner in another life, and Ma San (Zhang Jin), who is this film's approximate villain. Kar-wai's camera drifts from one to the other, often in scenes of incredible beauty, but the connection's are not always clear and the meditative state of the film blurs them together. I kept searching for thematic reasoning, but came up with confusion.
All that said, when the meditative nature of the film blends with the actions and words of the characters it is perfect. The most staggering of these scenes is when Ip goes to duel an old Northern master, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang). Instead of a flurry of fists in the rain, they have a polite exchange of words and what fighting they do is more akin to a slow dance. There, in the amber hue of the social club for the kung fu elite, they gracefully swirl around one another while the colors worn by the observers burst sensuously in the background. It's a romantic scene, just not in the usual sense we refer to between man and woman, but between characters and ideals.
As much as I loved these moments, and they will stick with me for years to come, I still have to report that I was left cold by The Grandmaster. It's elements, beautifully poetic though they are, were not enough to come together and creative an overall narrative that I found compelling. Much like The Master, it is a film created by a team who individually are geniuses at their craft, but didn't complete the circle.
For this reason I still recommend that you go watch The Grandmaster. I must be honest about my final indifference, but when it hits those highs you'll hold your breath tight in astonishment.
Directed by Wong Kar-wai.
Screenplay written by Kar-wai, Zou Jingzhi, and Xu Haofeng.
Starring Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, and Zhang Jin.