‘The Grandmaster’ opens in Chicago, in surprisingly wide release, on Friday, August 30th.
Wong Kar Wei’s The Grandmaster (Yī Dài Zōng Shī, 一代宗師) (Hong Kong / China, 2013) starts out with one of the most artful, atmospheric kung fu fights ever filmed - it’s more like a Pina Bausch dance piece than a brawl. The flying bodies, crunched body parts and collateral damage to the surroundings are what we expect, but Wong’s decision to stage the confrontation in a driving rainstorm, and his judicious use of slow-motion, close-ups, tinted color and unexpected camera angles give the whole scene a ritualized feeling, a profound rite of passage being enacted once again, timelessly, like a Sergio Leone gunfight, a swordsman’s duel or the coronation of a royal. It’s easy to think, after such kinetic pageantry, “Oh boy, the rest of this movie’s gonna rock.” And, indeed, several key parts of it do. But what makes it such a visually and narratively superb film is its thoughtful and fascinating reverence for the history and philosophies of the martial arts behind these battles – the details behind each fighting style, the devotion each school dedicates to continuing these traditions, the legacies of particular families who emerged as the vanguard of martial arts traditions, and the dramatic individual stories of the fighters themselves.
One such vanguard figure is the subject of this film; Ip Man, the 20th century’s foremost practitioner of Wing Chun (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, growing into one of the finest actors on the planet). The Qing dynasty lasted roughly from the late 17th century to the early 20th, and Wing Chun was a fighting style that evolved through that time. It’s most notable for being developed by a woman, a Shaolin nun named Ng Mui, who was interested in countering the specific advantages that stronger, bigger males enjoyed in physical combat. Ultimately, her techniques became gender-irrelevant; it’s all about generating forward energy from the body itself, rather than creating momentum for the body – drawing back or ‘winding up.’ It’s also a combined offensive / defensive style, rather than a traditional block-then-strike form. Ip Man was its most famous teacher; Bruce Lee was his most famous student.
As the film begins, Ip Man is the heir to a wealthy shipping family, and enjoys a pretty comfortable life. But his concurrent prowess as a martial artist leads him to be chosen as an ambassador of sorts for his southern region of Foshan. Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) is a revered longtime Grandmaster from the North who has spent his life travelling, teaching and bringing disparate styles from disparate regions together, uniting martial artists in common cause. He has already chosen his successor; Ma San (Zhang Jin), a ferociously skilled (but brash and egotistical) protégé. But Gong wants the South to appoint a representative as well, who will serve the same mission that he’s spent his own life carrying out. The southern masters choose Ip Man, whom the northern masters will then test. Ma San ostentatiously declares he’ll take on all comers, and starts a massive brawl in the Gold Pavilion (the classy brothel that is the traditional meeting-place of masters). Gong Yutian is infuriated with Ma San’s bullying bad form, and sends him away. After a series of sparring fights / fight-style demonstrations (including a novel and uncharacteristic philosophical test of wits by Gong Yutian himself), Ip Man is accepted among the masters. But among the spectators is Gong Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), his only child, who thinks her father is giving up too much prestige to inferiors. Gong Er is a sensational fighter herself – her style, the Gong family style, is the 64 Hands. And after her father has left, Gong Er challenges Ip Man to a fight as well. Gong Er defeats Ip Man under conditions that Ip himself has set, but there’s a profound sense of connection between them that carries through their subsequent lives.
And those are lives in upheaval, as the Japanese invade the Chinese mainland, throwing Ip’s family into poverty, and costing the lives of his two children. Meanwhile, Ma San has chosen to collaborate with the Japanese, and when Gong Yutian denounces him as unfit to be the heir of the Gong family legacy, Ma kills him. Gong Er returns to avenge her father, but Ma San won’t meet her, declaring that since she has a career as a doctor and is soon to be married (both according to her father’s wishes), that she’d be an unfit representative of the Gong martial arts legacy. Gong then forswears her upcoming marriage and forfeits her right to continue teaching the 64 Hands in order to devote herself to vengeance against Ma San.
The Japanese surrendered in 1945 after Hiroshima and Nagasaki; even while holding the majority of China, they simply couldn’t wage war against the Chinese, the Russians (in Manchuria) and the United States simultaneously. But the weakened Chinese Republic fell back into civil war with the communists, and the Nationalists eventually fled to Taiwan and the Pescadore islands. After deposing Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Tse-tung and the Communists ruled the mainland, and discouraged the practice of martial arts in China. Martial arts schools moved to Hong Kong (which had remained a British territory throughout), and Ip with them.
The remainder of the film, as thoughtful and compelling as what’s come before, follows Ip’s efforts to establish his Wing Chun school in Hong Kong, Gong Er’s ultimate confrontation with Ma San, and a third figure, Yi Xiantian, also known as ‘The Razor’ (Chen Chang), who worked as a Nationalist spy against the Japanese, met Gong Er on an auspicious train journey, and refused to join the Communist Party after the defeat of the Nationalists. He, too, lives in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong, and employs Bagua style kung fu, a very physical form based on strength and organ conditioning. Ip's is a personal path towards a kind of perfection and inner peace; Gong Er's is a tale of pride and righteous revenge to save her family's good name, and The Razor represents modern socio-political realities, and the individual struggles to survive thereof. Hence, these three lives, as interesting and unique as they are, are also led in deference to their overriding devotion to the spiritual and philosophical tenets of their martial arts, to both benefit and tragedy. The film could easily been titled The Grandmaster’s’.
You certainly can’t fault Wong Kar Wei for lack of ambition; The Grandmaster is a gorgeous and entertaining epic of family life, devotion to a higher cause, and the vagaries of political and cultural history. Every Wong film is a visual feast, and this film is no exception, but Wong is aspiring to a scale here that puts him in the same league as filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, David Lean or Sergio Leone (there’s even a sly musical salute to Leone’s work near the end of the film). I have a short list of problems with the film (some awkward time compression, not nearly enough Razor, a little heavy on CGI…),but I found Wong’s film to be an extraordinary and impressive chronicle of a time, place and culture that represents the best of what foreign film offers Western audiences. I have no doubt that the Asian markets ate this film up with a spoon, in spite of a far more straight-entertainment treatment of the same subject in 2008 and 2010 (Wilson Yip’s Ip Man and Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster, starring Donnie Yen, both very successful as well).
One thing I should point out; my review is based on the 130-minute Chinese release of the film. The version being released here, by The Weinstein Company, is 22 minutes shorter – 108 minutes. And, while the shorter version has led to open season on the Weinsteins from a number of American critics, this version apparently has Wong Kar Wei’s blessing nonetheless. Some explanatory text has been inserted for the benefit of audiences unfamiliar with Chinese history, some of that history has been streamlined, and the relationship between Ip Man and Gong Er has had some of its complexity leveled out (which could be a shame), but I suspect it’s not all that catastrophic. You’ll always be able to get longer versions on DVD later (you can buy the Chinese DVD now, if you like, and there’s a rumored four hour version that will no doubt become available, for avid masochists like me, next year), but I implore you to see this terrific film on the big screen during this run. It very well may be my favorite film of the year.