Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Grandmaster (**)

Directed by Wong Kar Wai


When someone as good as Wong Kar Wai doesn't make a movie for six years, his latest movie is going to be an event, which The Grandmaster is. Six years is a good enough amount of time for audiences to forget that his previous film, 2007's My Blueberry Nights, wasn't very watchable cinematically or thematically. It's also long enough to make you want to like a movie more than you'd want to. Wong has always been meditative, stylishly long-winded, but The Grandmaster just felt flat-out long to me at times. It's story too often seems influenced by tired Western biopics, while still trying to grasp onto Eastern history. But in his first action film since Ashes of Time, this is definitely Wong's best martial arts film, helped greatly by master stunt coordinator Yuen Woo-ping (Drunken Master and, in America, the Kill Bill films). The result is a beautifully crafted film with a wobbly storyline, the scales falling widely on each end with colossal thuds as one trumps the other.

The Grandmaster in question is Ip Man (Tony Leung), a privileged martial artist of Foshan, a province of Southern China. Ip Man is the best in Foshan at Wing Chun, a simple but effective form of Kung Fu. In early twentieth century China, the North and South provinces are divided by several cultural and stylistic differences, but most of all is probably Kung Fu styles. When the grandmaster of the North, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), comes down to Foshan to announce his retirement, he appoints Ma Han (Zhang Jin) as his successor. As per custom, Gong invites the South to appoint their best fighter to come up North to challenge Ma Han. The South know that this is an opportunity to prove itself, so without much thought, they choose Ip Man. Even Man is surprised, there are many martial artists who have been around for much longer and are much more proven, but in the end, everyone knows that he is the best.

When Yutian's daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) learns of her father's retirement, she is both disappointed with his decision to step down, as well as his decision to choose Ma Han over her as his successor. Furthermore, Er is intrigued by this Southern fighter, Ip Man, and worries what his skill can show in the Northen showdown against Ma Han. As a formality, Gong Er challenges Ip Man to a fight. The battle between the two is elegantly crafted, neither fighter creating an advantage over the other. It becomes more of a piece of performance art than a fight and both fighters realize this as it is happening. They've found their equals. Afterward, Er and Man decide to meet again when Man travels north for his battle with Ma Han. In Foshan with his wife and family, Ip Man cannot help but think of the beautiful artistry he and Gong Er created together and what they can create in the future.

But Ip Man's battle with Ma Han never happens. After Japanese occupation during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Foshan becomes a war-ravaged police state. Ip Man and his family struggle through poverty and starvation, refusing to be collaborators with Japanese forces. The Grandmaster documents how Ip Man's experience's with life-threatening poverty and his encounter with Gong Er ended up forming one of the most respected martial arts instructors in recent Chinese history. But the problem with The Grandmaster is that too often it seems torn between the need to be a successful action film and the facts of the story. The film predicts a very formal storyline, but then zigs in a different direction every time you think you have a handle on the storyline, which would be fine if it didn't feel so clunky. There are a lot of showdowns that the movie seems primed to present that end up never actually happening.

The fights that do happen, though? Pure artistry. Wong Kar Wai, along with Yuen Woo-Ping and cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd, puts on a clinic of visual storytelling. Like all of Wong's films, The Grandmaster is made with intoxicating beauty, all his usual visual motifs present (slow shutter speed still intact!). The film also marks another collaboration between Wong and star actor Tony Leung, an actor of such amazing grace and handsomeness (the girlfriend: "He's look likes an Asian Obama"), that he's even able to instill a character as dry as Ip Man with some charm. Ip Man went on to become a renowned martial arts instructor that famously taught Bruce Lee and made Wing Chun a popular form of Kung Fu throughout. But I don't really feel like The Grandmaster proved that his story is interesting enough to make a movie out of and by its end I was left wanting. It felt long in a plodding sort of way, and outside of it's incredible fight scenes, there was never a moment that really struck a chord with me. It's far from Wong's best, but that he's back making movies is a victory in itself.

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