The first Wong Kar Wai movie I saw was Fallen Angels (1995), which I thought of as the inverse of a John Woo gangster film, with all the action cut out and replaced by a lot of sitting around being romantically melancholy and stylishly bored. I thought it was pretty cool, and I also liked his inverted wuxia film, Ashes of Time (1994). Other than that, however, I found that Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000) soured me on his particular form of dolorous, slow-mo romanticism, and I skipped the last two films of his to play in theaters here. But along came The Grandmaster, which is his take on the story of real-life martial artist (and teacher of Bruce Lee) Ip Man, and I couldn’t resist seeing what he would make of the martial arts genre.
Well, I’ll add this one to Fallen Angels and Ashes of Time (not Ashes of Time Redux) as Wong Kar Wai films that I liked well enough. I was actually surprised by how much fighting there was, and the choreography by Yuen Woo Ping was mostly quite beautiful. Wong emphasizes the dance-like quality of martial arts, especially in the sequences featuring Zhang Ziyi, and yet there’s still a fair amount of focus on handwork and footwork and traditional depictions of different fighting styles with their different moves. As ornate and stylized as some of the camera work is, the action is still punctuated by some bone-crushing thuds and crashes, nicely punched up with tricks like speeding up the film.
The story is typically complicated, and I can’t say I have a firm enough grasp on it to know whether it makes sense or not. Ip Man, played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai, is the narrator, and the film mostly tracks his ascendancy as a master of the southern style of kung fu called Wing Chun. His master, Gong Yutian, has tried to merge the northern and southern schools of kung fu, and at first it seems that there will be a contest between Ip Man and Gong’s northern disciple, Ma San, to see who will succeed Gong as the uniter of the martial arts world. However, the story takes a turn here when Gong’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) challenges Ip Man to a fight, and at this point the movie seems to shift into a revisionist story about how women are excluded from the martial arts world. I wasn’t sure how successful this shift was, because all of a sudden Gong Er was the center of the story, Ip Man was pushed off to the side, and Gong Er seemed to become a substitute for him in terms of the central martial arts conflict. Was that clever, or a structural stumble? It didn’t help that in the final scenes, we get a lot of slo-mo closeups of Gong Er looking sad, a perfect tear dropping down her cheek, which reminded me too much of similar scenes involving Maggie Cheung at the end of Ashes of Time — although here at least the pain is from a battle wound rather than (or perhaps in addition to) mere heartbreak.
I was also curious about some of the historical elisions from this tale. Ip Man moves to Hong Kong in 1950 and mentions in narration that there was a wave of immigration to Hong Kong in 1950. Gee, what happened that caused people to migrate to Hong Kong in 1950? Maybe Chinese censors wouldn’t allow the reason to be more explicit, but it seemed kind of odd. Mostly, however, I found the bits of Chinese history and period detail to be quite fascinating, and I loved the integration of old stock footage into the film. I’d be curious to know how many of the details of Ip Man’s life presented in The Grandmaster are real biography. I’ve read that Gong Er is an invented character, but I’m not sure about Gong Yutian.
Visually, the whole thing is quite ravishing. I’m still not a fan of Wong’s signature slow-mo melancholy, but there’s less of it here than in my least favorite of his movies, and it was well-compensated for by the stylish fight scenes. It’s an art movie, no doubt, but with strong genre elements. If you’re into that kind of thing.