Wong Kar Wai’s highly anticipated “The Grandmaster” comprises many things for many people, ranging from earnest fans and martial-art film fanatics to art-house aficionados and anyone interested in recent Chinese history.
But above all else, a melancholy love story with an almost existential acceptance of fate wraps itself around what can only be described as a quick primer in modern Chinese martial arts (“Kung Fu for Dummies” perhaps?). At the heart of this story are two Chinese international stars,Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi, as lovers doomed never to love but from afar.
So this is a beautifully staged and photographed martial-arts picture with disjointed story lines and characters that drift in and out of focus. As I always find myself writing in reviews of Wong Kar Wai movies following “In the Mood for Love,” there must exist in some editing room — or more likely on a DVD with the uncut material fully restored — a more satisfying four hour version of his latest film.
While the press notes indicate a nine-year period of planning and production for “The Grandmaster,” the writer also drops a hint that the auteur first started thinking about such a film when he spotted a magazine at a newspaper kiosk in Argentina in 1996 with Bruce Lee on the cover, this more than two decades after his death.
This interest in the lore of Bruce Lee led to research into Lee’s teacher, Ip Man, and thinking about the various schools of kung fu that proliferated in Hong Kong in the 1950s following the communist takeover of mainland China. In announcing an Ip Man project in 2002, however, Wong gave other filmmakers a chance to beat him to the punch, most notably in Wilson Yip’s two “Ip Man” movies.
So Wong may have shifted his focus away from biography to a more aesthetic rumination about martial arts and the various philosophical notions behind each school. Thus, “The Grandmaster,” while following the trajectory of Ip’s life, sends much time laying out the thinking behind each school’s discipline.
Under the guidance of martial-arts cinema own grandmaster, action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (“Kill Bill,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), the genre experiences another quantum leap in terms of pure beauty of form and action. Those with more expertise than I can evaluate the filmmakers’ claim about the utter authenticity of each fighting system, but the screen pulsates with excitement every time the fighters square off.
Every shot, every movement and every edit has been meticulously planned and executed. If there is a downside here is the self-consciousness of the effort. Is a fighter-actor making that motion as the best mean to defend himself or to create the most exquisitely beautiful image on screen?
There are fights in the rain and snow and slow motion. There are extreme close-ups of water dripping off the faces of competitors and even of a cigarette’s end where each tiny tobacco shred ignites in glowing red. No wonder it takes years to make a Wong Kar Wai film.
With titles and voice-overs, the film initially acquaints a viewer with the north/south divide in Chinese martial arts. In the north, the leading grandmaster, Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang), establishes a school for Xingyi. His main disciple, Ma San (Zhang Jin), will succeed him since his only offspring is a daughter, Gong Er (Zhang).
But Gong Er is the sole inheritor of her father’s lethal Bagua-style that includes the so-called ’64 Hands’ technique. Then in1936, the Japanese invade the northeast provinces and set up a puppet government in Manchuria.
Meanwhile Ip Man is born in Fashan in the south to a wealthily family. So he can devote his first 40 years to the study of of Wing Chun fighting. He lives a contented life with his wife Zhang Yongcheng (Korean actress Song Hye-kyo) and family.
On the eve of World War II, Gong’s retirement party moves from north to south and to the Golden Pavilion, a brothel that serves as the meeting hall and battleground for southern martial artists. Here the retiring master issues a challenge to the best southern fighter, which of course is Ip Man.
Ip’s triumph — which comes not as you would expect it — provokes his daughter, Gong Er, to challenge Ip anew. She does get her family’s revenge but the dye is cast: In their duel the two experience an undeniable attraction (brought to your attention in the slo-mo mid-air moments where lips almost touch intimately).
In the years that follow, each faces difficult challenges. Gong Yutian dies after a confrontation with Ma San, his former protege now installed in office by the occupying Japanese. His daughter vows revenge but that vow also includes her refusal to teach martial arts or to marry and bear children.
Ip loses his fortune and two daughters to the war. Impoverished, he migrates to Hong Kong to teach Wing Chun in order to make a living. When the communists close the border to the then British colony, he will never be able to return to the mainland and to his wife.
Gong tracks down and confronts Ma San for a fight at a train station on New Year’s Eve. This is, for my money, the single most engrossing encounter in the movie since something more is at stake then bragging rights. This fight is about family honor and blood.
In the early ’50s, Gong Er too winds up in Hong Kong but as a doctor (which is as her father wished). Now the would-be lovers are in close proximity but due to her secret vow nothing can ever come of their love.
This story moves in and out of focus as the years roll by since Wong (who wrote the script with Zou Jingzhi and Xu Haofeng) has dueling interests. The love story often takes backseat to conversations and fights designed to demonstrate the different styles and philosophies of the fighting schools.
Meanwhile characters drift in and out the film. Ip’s wife, introduced with much fanfare at the beginning, goes completely AWOL. (Reportedly the Korean actress couldn’t return for the additional shooting that often accompanies a Wong film.)
Chang Chen is third billed but his character, The Razor, a master of the Baji form, is given only one major sequence. It certainly seems as if much of his story line went missing in the editing room.
Wong’s long-standing collaborators do their thing with immaculate artistry. William Chang Suk Pin, aboard here as production and costume designer and as an editor, certainly deserves credit along with Philippe Le Sourd’s camerawork for making everything from the amazing fights to that glowing cigarette butt sparkle.
One thing that does need explaining is why these martial artists insist on conducting their challenge matches in places like the Golden Pavilion filled with so much easily broken carved wood and delicate glass.
Opens: August 23, 2013 (The Weinstein Co.)
Production companies: Annapurna Pictures/Block 2 Pictures/Sil-Metropole Orgnisation Ltd. present a Jet Tone Films and Metropole Orgnisation Ltd. production
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Wang Qingxiang, Zhang Jin, Zhao Benshan, Song Hye-kyo
Director/story: Wong Kar Wai
Screenwriters: Zou Jingzhi, Xu Haofeng, Wong Kar-wai
Producers: Wong Kar-wai, Jacky Pang Yee Wah
Executive producers: Song Dai, Chan Ye Cheung, Megan Ellison
Director of photography: Philippe Le Sourd
Action choreographer: Yuen Wo Ping
Production designers: William Chang Suk Ping, Alfred Yau Wai Ming
Music: Shigeru Umebayashi, Nathaniel Mechaly
Costume designer: William Chang Suk Pin
Editor: William Chang Suk Ping, Benjamin Courtines, Poon Hung Yiu
PG-13 rating, 108 minutes