THE GRANDMASTER-- 3 STARS
Generations now after Bruce Lee payed the way for creating an American love affair of martial arts cinema, seemingly every year since the 1990's, one outstanding new generation martial arts film from Asia makes its way to the United States after garnering international acclaim overseas. Their modern use of innovative wired stuntwork over computer-generated effects has made some of the old Bruce Lee films look bland by comparison, if that was even possible. With their own style, they have gone on to influence our own movies and how to shoot action. When you watch some American action films during this same time period, particularly The Matrix trilogy and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill saga, you can see the effect these imports have had beyond homage and mimic.
In their home countries, these films are huge productions and art forms on the same level as our summer blockbusters here and generate serious business and respect. The really good ones or really popular ones get the chance to cross the Pacific to us from time to time. Some years, you get future Oscar nominees and winners like 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou's trio of 2002's Hero, 2004's House of Flying Daggers, and 2006 Curse of the Golden Flower. The crossover martial arts successes have made international stars out of the likes of Jet Li, Chow Yun-fat, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and others.
This year's top import, The Grandmaster, is debuting this weekend at various Chicagoland theaters with a "Martin Scorsese and Samuel L. Jackson present..." tagline on its domestic advertising after being picked up by the Weinstein Company. Released in China back in January and making the festival rounds in Venice and Hong Kong, The Grandmaster is the first martial arts film directed by visionary Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. Called the Hong Kong's "most romantic filmmaker" years ago, Kar-Wai normally specializes in exotic and brooding domestic romances, the greatest of which is 2000's In the Mood for Love which won two awards at Cannes and made Time magazine's "10 Best" list that year. With a penchant for moody music, colorful imagery, decorated interiors, and splendidly unique cinematography, Kar-wai brings those talents to a totally new genre for him with The Grandmaster.
For an American comparison, imagine if the Coen Brothers decided to make Gladiator. That's the change of pace this is for Wong Kar-Wai and The Grandmaster. The results are something with more depth and meaning than the usual martial arts film that relies on a stopwatch to pace when the next fight is supposed to take place. Rich with historical and philosophical context, The Grandmaster offers more than just fancy movies. It aims to tells a true journey.
Tony Leung Chiu-wai, arguably China's greatest and most decorated living or non-living actor, re-teams with Wong Kar-wai for the seventh time and tried martial arts for three years. They are that country's Scorsese and De Niro. Together, they chronicle the life of the legendary Ip Man, a Wing Chun grandmaster of kung fu who would later go on to mentor Bruce Lee himself. This historical figure is no stranger to foreign films, with Donnie Yen's Ip Man and Ip Man 2 from 2008 and 2010 that are ranked high on martial arts aficionado's list of the best of the genre.
In The Grandmaster, we meet the Foshan native as a reflective master in his forties. Ip is a respected and peaceful man when schools of thought and philosophy clash between the north and south regions of China, sparking a turf war of skill and teaching. Considered a equal master, the retiring master Gong Yuitan (Wang Qingxiang) in the north passes over Ip and appoints the younger and brasher Ma San (Zhang Jin) as his heir apparent. Feeling himself to be the better master, Ip decides to move and side with the southern region and throw his hat in the ring as their own heir. To earn that spot, Ip must pass the tests of three southern masters before confronting the retiring and new masters of the north. During that process, he meets and befriends Gong's daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi of Rush Hour 2 and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Though Ip is already married, their connection borders on romantic as well as competitive.
When China become embroiled in the Second Sino-Japanese War which merged with World War II, Ma San betrays his country to side with Japan and kills Gong Yuitan, spurring Gong Er's vow and quest of revenge. At the same time, Ip has fell into poverty in the north and loses his children to starvation. Later, he decides to move to British-occupied Hong Kong in hopes to earn a living and greater respect teaching his Wing Chun discipline in schools, only to find more competition and adversity. Sure enough, Ip and Gong Er's paths cross again as the years go by.
The Grandmaster is a drama that relies of visual storytelling. Longing looks and glances replace dialogue and chatter, matching Kar-wai's modus operandi. Every scene is given its dear sweet time and space to develop in this way and look exceedingly beautiful at every angle. Shigeru Umebayashi's collaborated musical score makes sure of that. That said, longing and deliberate pace mean all of the politics and philosophy surround the characters feels more at the center than the action. If you want your action movies to have more meat on their bones and brains in their skulls, you've come to the right place. The boost of style to go with the substance is commendable.
However, with all that heavy storytelling, the movie is not going to win cool points with the action junkies. Fight movie fans are going to yawn more than drop their jaws while watching The Grandmaster. Even though Yuen Woo-ping, the cinema world's foremost expert on martial arts stuntwork, has brought his creativity and choreography to the movie, the casually spaced action scenes are likely going to feel too fleeting and infrequent for that crowd.
When those fight scenes do arrive, Woo-ping's moves get Kar-wai's additional visual panache. There are fights set in front of moving trains and under the rain that are just gorgeous. Tense close-ups and fluid slow-motion camera speeds slow the blur of the action to highlight the effort and physicality of everyone involved. The effect is incredibly overused, spilling into non-fight scenes, but is effective nonetheless. No one can make a waft of cigarette smoke or a shot of blowing snowflakes look more rapturous or impeccable than Wong Kar-wai.
That boost of style and a tremendous sense of atmosphere makes even the most benign or rudimentary shot flow like the skirt of a polished ballroom dancer and The Grandmaster a unique experience. If you've got the patience to wade through the lofty history, you'll be rewarded with a fully developed character experience to follow the renowned Ip Man's journey. Sometimes a slow journey beats a repeated string of sprints. That's the experiment here. It's not for everyone, and while I can't call it as emotionally stirring as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero, it works for me over Punchfest 2013.
LESSON #1: PROVING ONE'S SELF TO BE A MASTER IN THEIR GIVEN FIELD-- If I sorted every line of wisdom spoken in this movie, I would never run out of useful quotes and lessons and we would be here a while. My goal was to make three lessons of the movie's storyline over its philosophy. The first lesson is about proving one's self in their expertise. The term of "master" is not taken lightly within the realms of the different existing martial arts disciplines of this era. However, that term is not given. It is earned. Proving your worth requires competition and victory, both of which Ip achieves with abundance throughout his career.
LESSON #2: THE DEPTH OF VOWS PEOPLE TAKE TO THEIR GRAVE-- Vows are promises on steroids. Promises have a shelf life, a time and a place, and a correct-ability. Vows are ironclad life-changers you take to your grave. Am I right, married people? When Gong Er's father is killed, she seeks revenge and vows to never teach, marry, or have children for her entire life in order to take the sinful path of vengeance, all traits that define her livelihood as a martial arts master and a woman. Yowzers! That's commitment that trumps that swear jar I keep on top of the refrigerator.
LESSON #3: THE IMPORTANCE OF PASSING ON ONE'S MASTERY AND KNOWLEDGE TO OTHERS-- This final lesson speaks to both of our main characters. For Gone Er, her vow of taking revenge over the work of teaching means that she has to accept that her knowledge and martial arts discipline dies with her nonexistent lineage. That realization hurts her deeply. On the other side, after experiencing loss elsewhere in his livelihood, Ip learns that teaching and passing on his knowledge is one of the most important things he can do with his life. Sharing his mastery becomes his relevance.