The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi)
China/Hong Kong (2013) Dir. Wong Kar Wai
After two action packed and successful films starring Donnie Yen and an unrelated prequel directed by Herman Yau, one has to wonder if there is really room for another Yip Man bio pic? Arty auteur Wong Kar Wai seems to think so and after a lengthy wait – ten years after the first announcement, an injury to leading man Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Wong’s own perfectionism (it took him over a year to edit) – The Grandmaster finally arrives for our delectation.
Always his own man, Wong chooses to approach his subject from a totally different angle to the other films. Instead of painting Ip Man as martial arts superhero like Donnie Yen’s films, Wong tells the story of a man who was simply good at Wing Chun Kung Fu through flashbacks and a fractured narrative. Sharing the spotlight is the revenge subplot of Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) the daughter of a rival Kung Fu master who once fought against then became friends with Ip Man.
As crazy as this sounds, the story of Ip Man as Wong tells it isn’t really much of a story at all, to the point that he seems like a secondary character in his own film, with Gong Er’s tale being the meatier of the two. We first meet Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in his seventh collaboration with Wong) in a bar reflecting on his life as a Kung Fu master before recalling a multi-man fight as Ip kicks some serious backside in the pouring rain. This is followed by more retrospection looking at Ip’s training as a child and his later marriage to Cheung Wing-sing (Song Hye-kyo) with whom he has two daughters who died during the Second Sino-Japanese War of the late 1930’s.
Ip’s prominence as a martial artist begins when Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), Gong Er’s father and a master from the North announces his retirement and chooses Ma San (Zhang Jin) as his heir due to not having a son. Yutain suggest that the South should have a master and Ip Man is the one chosen to represent the South against Gong. However their battle isn’t physical but a clash of philosophies which Ip Man is declared the victor.
Gong Er takes this personally and challenges Ip Man to a fight to regain her family’s honour, which she wins on a technicality and the two part as friends. When the Japanese occupied China during the war, Ma San sides with the Japanese and kills Yutain, leading Gong Er to devote her life to avenging her father’s death.
So, with two superstar leads, an inventive director and a fascinating story to tell, one would think this film couldn’t fail. Well, it does and it doesn’t. It is beautifully made and the performances of Leung and Ziyi are faultless, the latter reaffirming her status after some recent missteps. The problem is that it lacks focus and the scattershot narrative doesn’t help much either along with Wong’s trademark visual flair feeling overly indulgent and unnecessary for a film of this nature.
It’s clear that beneath the superficial wonders Wong throws at us that he is intent on telling a story with a deeper emotional resonance, especially for the Chinese audience. However Gong Er is the conduit for this and not Ip Man, the supposed subject of the film. This makes it more of as Wong Kar Wai film than an Ip Man film.
Wong, to his credit, is wary of not making his story sappy and to that end he succeeds, allowing his superb cast, Ziyi in particular, to express this through their performances with any didactic help – sentimental soundtrack aside natch. Both are called upon to fight as well and the intense training by Leung paid off, allowing him to move with the grace and subtleties of the real Yip Man’s Wing Chin style.
Ziyi hasn’t made a martial arts film since House Of Flying Daggers in 2004 yet she shows no sign of rust in her balletic movements. Credit also goes to the inestimable Yuen Woo-Ping for his excellent fight choreography.
Wong Kar Wai is an artist, of that there is no question. His unique visual style is what his reputation is built on so to expect him to change it even for what is essential a respectful bio pic is arguably sheer folly. Admittedly there are some wonderful visual feasts to behold here but for every moment that is a treat there are countless more when it is unnecessary.
Shots randomly speed up or slow down for even the slightest act, while other tricks like shutter speed manipulation and focus switches are applied with equal abandon to the point they become a distraction. The end result leaves one feeling as though the superficial aspect was of greater importance than telling the story; or maybe Wong simply can’t help himself.
This may have worked for Wong in his 1994’s arthouse martial arts flick Ashes Of Time but for a tribute like this, it’s too much. Naturally there will be an audience who will marvel at these visual flourishes and will find it enhances their enjoyment and appreciation of the film. It is easy to see why but it will be just as lost on others, especially if they are hoping to see a straight up martial arts film akin to the aforementioned Donnie Yen outings.
The Grandmaster is either everything you’d expect it to be or nothing like you want to see, depending on how much he know and understand about Wong Kar Wai’s style. It’s a rare project in which all that is good about it is what makes it a disappointment on first viewing. I think this may be a grower.